Sports, politics don’t mix — at least not in America

I would find the results of this poll interesting: How many of those protesters who marched outside Staples Center before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Monday in Los Angeles had an opinion 30 years ago?

How many disagreed with President Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics?

I have a guess: Most if not all those old enough to remember.

You can’t have it both ways when it comes to sports intermingling with politics. You either believe it’s suitable for professional leagues to take a stand on issues of political debate or you don’t.

Phil Jackson simply answered a question. He offered a few thoughts on Arizona Senate Bill 1070. The Lakers coach said it wasn’t right for sports and politics to mix when it came to legislation like the one now aimed at identifying and prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants.

I would have preferred he talked only about how best his team might guard Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, but he was correct in suggesting his was not the best position to debate the bill.

At least not in this country.

We don’t live in Zambia. We don’t exist in a culture where red card campaigns are needed to help disqualify human trafficking. We live in the greatest democracy known to man, not a place where political parties align themselves with certain sports teams to create even more fear and violence and rebellion.

Except, of course, in Philadelphia.

Sports in America should be viewed as an escape, a temporary pause from the serious and often life-changing issues that dominate our news. And, no, the Yankees not being in first place doesn’t qualify.

Sport is sport. Politics are politics. When the sides meet and the lines get blurred, so does our ability to escape. Jackson isn’t solving what is wrong with SB 1070. Neither is Kobe Bryant nor Luke Walton.

Although I’d love to hear Walton’s father discuss the issue.

Protesters on Monday obviously understood marching outside an NBA playoff game that involved the league’s marquee team would draw far more media attention than had they continued strolling up and down the sidewalk outside a state legislature.

They knew all about the potential for face time and took full advantage.

But didn’t we learn anything about the need to keep sports and politics separate 30 years ago, about the mess it can generate when the two get tangled up in a web of emotion and differing agendas?

Carter did what he believed was best for the country at the time, but it wasn’t the best solution to a major problem. Political motives don’t drive most athletes. Sports should be a way to connect and not divide.

This isn’t to say we should expect athletes to live in a vacuum. Individuals have every right to voice their opinions. I would think it might be difficult for a player such as Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, a Mexican-American who lived 12 years of his youth south of the border, to feel good about playing any game in Arizona.

Including the 2011 All-Star Game.

But that doesn’t mean Major League Baseball should think for a second about moving the game to another city, that a professional sports league should buckle to a senator’s charge that players should boycott the event to force such a decision.

Should the NFL never again consider Arizona for a Super Bowl because the majority of voters there sided with hometown senator John McCain over Barack Obama for president?

Should the NCAA never again have tournament basketball games in the state because sides are quarreling over the strictest immigration measures in generations?

Protest all you want, but SB 1070 won’t change because Jackson or Bryant or LeBron James or Peyton Manning or whoever chooses a side. It’s like when Hollywood stars endorse presidential candidates and we’re supposed to base our votes on their recommendations.

If I want to know what Matt Damon thinks about something, I’ll rent “Good Will Hunting.”

Thirty years ago, Jimmy Carter responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by having America turn its back on the Olympic Games. Many of the officials and athletes involved still haven’t forgiven him. He mixed politics with sport at the most profound level. He made a big mistake.

It was wrong then, and it’s wrong today. Carter’s move didn’t save any lives, and assuming professional sports leagues becoming intimately involved with SB 1070 will alter its course is ridiculous.

It’s one thing for an athlete to speak out.

It’s quite another for an entire league or sport.

Sport is sport. Politics are politics.

They are not one in the same and shouldn’t be viewed as such.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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