Professional football players occupy an unusual place in American society because the NFL is one of the few institutions that are embraced equally by Americans on both sides of the partisan divide. Since 1994, according to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Democrats and Republicans who hold “strongly negative” views of the other party has more than doubled. And this partisan alienation increasingly structures how Americans live. As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake puts it, Americans are “gerrymandering themselves” along ideological lines. Liberals choose smaller houses in diverse urban areas where there’s lots of opportunity to walk. Conservatives choose bigger houses in small towns or rural areas where neighbors share their religious faith.
The sorting isn’t only geographic. Studies show that liberals eat at Au Bon Pain and California Pizza Kitchen. Conservatives favor Cracker Barrel and Whataburger. Democrats buy their groceries at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, Republicans at Randall’s. Democrats don’t just watch MSNBC. They also watch Comedy Central and Bravo. Conservatives don’t just watch Fox News. They also watch Country Music Television and the motor sports-themed Speed Channel. Even the reaction to Hollywood action movies can break down along partisan lines. Earlier this year, when Columbia Pictures’ remake of Ghostbusters featured an all-female cast of heroes, the Alt-Right declared war on the film, and progressives rallied to its defense. As Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, writes, “We’ve built a country where we can all choose the neighborhood and church and news show-most compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this way-of-life segregation. Our country has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live just a few miles away.”
Professional sports, and especially professional football, represent an exception to this trend. Put a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican in a room, especially if they’re men, and ask them to find a shared cultural vocabulary and they’re likely to start discussing the NFL. Soccer may be more popular among liberals, golf and auto racing among conservatives. But with its mass appeal, the NFL overwhelms these ideological distinctions. Monday Night Football may be the 21st century’s closest equivalent to Walter Cronkite.
I’m not suggesting that in order to keep the NFL nonpartisan, professional football players should never express a political thought. To the contrary, athletes—especially African American athletes—have a unique opportunity to use the prestige they enjoy with conservative white Americans to make those Americans face racism and injustice. If you’re a Donald Trump-loving, Rush Limbaugh-listening Republican in the Denver suburbs, it’s a lot easier to demonize and disregard Barack Obama than Von Miller.
But that makes it all the more important that athletes speak in a way that can be heard. Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic Convention was so effective because he claimed America’s symbols—the Constitution, Arlington National Cemetery, his son’s military sacrifice—and accused Trump of disrespecting them with his anti-Muslim bigotry. Colin Kaepernick, by contrast, is exposing himself to the charge of disrespect. I don’t doubt his motives or his courage. But tactically, there’s a better way.