Most people would identify watching sports as an enjoyable diversion, like gardening or hiking. However, few fights break out at greenhouses. And seldom do two men in a bar engage in a shouting match about whose favorite trail is better. Sports fandom is full of a different kind of passion.
Perhaps that passion is the reason so many people have adverse reactions when a professional athlete speaks his mind on a current event or issue. Ben Watson of the New Orleans Saints wrote an impassioned response to the grand jury's recent decision in Ferguson, Mo., not to indict a police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager. During introductions before last Sunday's game, five St. Louis Rams players displayed the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture made popular during the protests in Ferguson. Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo was both honored and scorned for his vocal support of marriage equality. While many support Watson and Ayanbadejo's right to speak, and the Rams' protest, no doubt others wished they would stick to tackling dummies and studying playbooks.
Therein lies the inherent conflict. Is it too much to ask that when we turn on Monday Night Football we can find some relief from the "real world" and immerse ourselves in grown men playing childhood games for a few hours?
It might not be too much to ask, but it's also not very realistic. The athletes playing the games we love are people too. They feel the same frustration at a perceived injustice that the rest of us do. How can we deny athletes the right to speak on any subject that doesn't pertain to their sport? Can we demand accountants keep their feelings on the Packers to themselves and stick to crunching budget numbers?
In fact, we need thoughtful, intelligent athletes not to be afraid to speak their minds. Professional athletes can be the door to deeper discussions with the wide audience they command. When pros like Ayanbadejo and Watson express themselves, they give a public face and voice to those who can't advocate for themselves.
Give me more athletes like Watson and Ayanbadejo -- who understand their value is greater than that of a man playing a boy's game.