When Donald Trump spoke recently against the NFL players who have been kneeling during the national anthem, he was embracing a well-established tradition of opposition to the civil-rights protests of black athletes. During the 1960s, white sportswriters, politicians, and fans widely demanded that athlete-activists like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and John Carlos “stick to sports.” Though the current generation of sportswriters has a broader range of perspectives on this subject, there are still politicians, commentators, and fans who criticize contemporary black athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James for stating their opinions on topics beyond sports.
Trump’s “stick to sports” message also invokes a conservative argument that predates the civil-rights movement, one that focuses as much on preserving a national system of economic and social inequality as it does on maintaining white supremacy. This argument dates back to the emergence of organized sports as a commercial activity in the mid-19th-century United States. It presents sports as increasingly important to the national culture but nevertheless distinct from the rest of Americans’ economic, religious, and political lives.