When Johnny Damon’s name was on the list of guests for “Fox and Friends” last week, it may have been surprising to viewers — but his message was one that needed to be articulated.
During his playing days, the 18-year big-league veteran was known for his long hair, weak throwing arm, strong bat, and blazing speed. There was little controversy surrounding his career other than when he left the Boston Red Sox and signed with their rival, the New York Yankees, in free agency following the 2005 season.
On his “Fox and Friends” appearance, Damon spoke out against politics in sports. He was asked about how ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor Jemele Hill called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter and received no real backlash from her employer. Damon said statements like Hill’s are not good for business.
“I want to watch sports for sports,” the former baseball player said. “You know, when the politics get involved with sports, it gets a little bit touchy. It’s kind of like MTV. It used to be music television. If ESPN turns into a political arena, I know a lot of people just won’t watch.”
“If ESPN turns into a political arena, a lot of people just won’t watch.”
During his nearly two decades in Major League Baseball, Damon rarely mentioned politics, although he once praised GOP presidential primary candidate Rudy Giuliani in 2008. When Barack Obama was elected president, however, Damon did not use his platform to bash the then commander-in-chief. It wasn’t until his playing days were over that he pivoted more to politics — he campaigned in Florida for Donald Trump during last year’s presidential race.
Another former Red Sox player agreed over the weekend with Damon about the mixing of politics and sports. David Ortiz told TMZ he thought politics should be kept off the sports field. After being shown a picture of fans unfurling a banner at a baseball game that read, “Racism Is As American As Baseball,” Ortiz commented, “That’s kind of messed up right there.”
He added, “You don’t want to add more s*** to the s*** that is already out there.”
Being outspoken on political issues has hurt players’ careers in the past. Most recently, Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem and his loud Twitter personality, mixed with his below-average NFL quarterbacking skills — 49.2 quarterback rating and ranked 23rd of 30 qualifiers last season — have made him unemployable in the league.
Kaepernick is not the first player to “politicize” himself out of a league. In the 1990s, a pair of NBA players, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges, met with similar fates.
Abdul-Rauf, who converted to Islam in 1991, started protesting the national anthem in 1996 because he felt American values did not coincide with his Islamic beliefs. The league suspended him for a game when he refused to stand, so he began to look down instead. After the season, he was traded to the Sacramento Kings, and despite averaging 19.2 points per game during the 1995-1996 season, Abdul-Rauf became a backup on his new team. Once his contract expired, he was out of the league at only 27 years old.
Meanwhile, Hodges won the NBA three-point shootout for three straight seasons (1990-1992), but his NBA career came to an end at just 31 years of age.
When the Chicago Bulls visited the White House during the 1991-1992 season to celebrate winning an NBA championship, Hodges used the opportunity to dress in a dashiki. He handed then-President George H.W. Bush a handwritten letter criticizing his administration’s stance on race relations. Following the season, Hodges also criticized his former teammate, Michael Jordan, for not being outspoken on social issues in the African-American community.
Several pro athletes have gone into politics after their careers were over and excelled — such as the late Kentucky senator and MLB Hall of Famer Jim Bunning; former Sacramento mayor and three-time NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson; and former Oklahoman U.S. rep and pro football Hall of Famer Steve Largent. However, none of these players were overly political during their playing careers. Johnson, a Democrat, even accepted a humanitarian award from then-President George H.W. Bush during his playing career.
Most pro athletes are retired by their mid-30s — so even if they are apolitical for the few years they’re paid to play a sport, they still have more than half their lives remaining to dedicate themselves to the causes of their choice. When they are playing, however, alienating half their audience with an aggressive political agenda is not in their best interest — or in the best interest of any sport.