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Game On / Stick to sports

Mountain View, California, Sept. 13, 2016: Prophets of Rage wear San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick jerseys. The band took a knee while the national anthem played before the show.

Photo by Sterling Munksgard


It’s a line many sportswriters encounter when they veer from writing game stories and breaking down play-by-play: Tweet about politics or mention the world beyond the game itself and risk a scolding from someone who’s offended by the awareness of anything beyond the final score and lukewarm quotes about grit and hustle.


But “sticking to sports” is impossible. If you are interested in sports, you must be prepared to understand the financial, political, and social issues that surround them. Often, they’re impossible to avoid.


When the San Francisco 49ers visited Orchard Park on October 16, the game was about much more than the Bills looking for their first four-game winning streak since 2008. It was also about 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick getting his first start since he began a silent national anthem protest to bring attention to police violence against people of color.


Even as a backup, Kaepernick’s story has dominated the sports narrative in America. It’s been divisive: some are calling the protest unpatriotic; others say the opposite. That Sunday in Orchard Park, fans at pregame tailgates tackled a dummy wearing Kaepernick’s jersey and an afro, a hairstyle Kaepernick began sporting this season. Vendors outside the stadium sold shirts in Bills colors featuring a rifle scope focused on Kaepernick. Others were more vulgar or sexually suggestive. Some fans counteracted this by staging their own silent protests in support of the quarterback outside New Era Field.


Inside the stadium, Kaepernick’s first appearance on the field drew heavy boos. Chants of “U-S-A” filled the air before the anthem. Kaepernick knelt silently, surrounded by security and media while most fans stood and sang along. While many standing members of the media clamored over Kaepernick taking a knee, at least two people of color inside the press box remained seated, as they have all season.


The racial and political divide between the press, fans, and players in a league where more than seventy percent of the players are people of color is stark. Despite the boos and cheers from the crowd, it’s tough to find players critical of Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee.


“I think a lot of people respect what Kaepernick is doing and what he’s trying to bring attention to,” says Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, whose sack of Kaepernick in the fourth quarter drew huge cheers. “But nobody was talking crap about him kneeling or anything like that. We just wanted to compete and play good football in between the lines.”


The ten-year NFL veteran made it clear how players feel about Kaepernick: It’s very different in the stands than it is out on the field.


“He’s not against our country. He’s not being disrespectful to the military. He’s just trying to stand up and bring light and continue a conversation that needs to be had,” Alexander states. “I think people want to make him pick a side, but I think you can be patriotic and still bring to light some of the issues that we have in this country.”


Bills head coach Rex Ryan took a question about the crowd’s animosity toward Kaepernick and chalked it up to the ordinary game-day passion of Bills fans.


“I thought it was awesome,” Ryan says of the “USA” chants. “Our fans are here, there’s a butt in every seat, so it’s a great atmosphere. It’s what you expect here in Buffalo.”


It’s a diplomatic move, but it came after a week in which Ryan had to walk back support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Ryan actually had introduced Trump at an April rally in downtown Buffalo before the New York State primary. In October, however, a Bleacher Report story featured Bills players critical of Ryan’s endorsement of the candidate one player calls “hostile to people of color.” One player said, “The fact that he could back someone as closed-minded as Trump genuinely shocked me.”


Much like Kaepernick’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ryan’s support of Trump inevitably changes the way you feel about the two sports figures and how they do their jobs. The economic, social, and political issues that surround sports impact how, where, and why we watch them.


The sports landscape in Buffalo and everywhere else is inexorably shaped by the people in the real world. Consider this: Buffalo still has the Bills and Sabres because of hydraulic fracturing, a method of natural gas collection that’s environmentally dubious at best and an ecological disaster at worst. But without Pegula’s billions made from fracking with East Resources, Jon Bon Jovi might own the Toronto Bills. Or maybe Donald Trump—another bidder on the team—buys the Bills and never becomes the Republican nominee for president.


Pegula himself has experimented with politics, though in a much quieter and smaller sense. In 2013, Albany reporter Jon Campbell reported that Pegula had invited New York State lawmakers to Buffalo to pitch them on the benefits of hydrofracking before it was officially banned by the state two years later.


Keep Pegula’s bank account and politics in mind when the Bills inevitably begin asking for public aid in building a new stadium, especially after a $130 million refurbishment of the team’s Orchard Park facility in 2013. Much of that money, of course, came from New York State and Erie County. There’s a mountain of evidence that suggests public financing for privately used sports venues is a terrible fiscal decision for any government, but civic pride is always a weapon wielded to build these stadiums with tax dollars that could be spent on education or highways or a responsibly trained police force.


When Colin Kaepernick kneels or Rex Ryan endorses Trump or Terry Pegula pitches fracking, they’re merely bringing all of the political and social issues already embedded in sports to the surface. Kaepernick brought this attention upon himself in a calculated move, but these outside influences are always there. The impact may not be obvious, but their quiet machinations are always at play.


After Buffalo’s 45-16 week-six win over San Francisco, Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin exchanged jerseys with Kaepernick on the field. Reporter Prescott Rossi caught up with Goodwin in the stadium tunnel and asked him about the moment and what it means to have the losing quarterback’s jersey.


“This is part of history,” Goodwin said. “We’ll look back twenty years, thirty years from now and be like ‘Man, this dude stood for something. No matter how many times he got booed, no matter the scrutiny he faced, he was resilient through that and had the heart and the courage to continue to do that.’”


Kaepernick’s place in history will ultimately be shaped by more than how he performs on the field. Just like everything else in sports, it’s all much more complicated than what’s found in the box score. If you’re just sticking to the numbers, you’re missing the real game.                    



Ryan Nagelhout is a writer and editor of children’s books as well as a freelance sportswriter. He thinks that, sometimes, punting is winning.




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