Sports, a vehicle for ethical debate and change in 2014

Published 3:48 pm Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2014 was flooded with ethical issues, racial polarity and government mistrust brought on by a collection of instances sprinkled throughout the calendar year.

Whatever your views are regarding certain social issues or widely debated topics, the last 12 months have been some of the most tense since 2001, unearthing a myriad of ugly divisions in our society — Democrat and Republican, white and black, gay and straight, just to name a few.

Ever since Jesse Owens mounted the podium in the 1936 Olympics, sports have always provided an alternative platform for social expression and political statements. This year featured memorable sporting spectacles like the World Cup, the NCAA basketball tournament and, of course, the Super Bowl, America’s favorite event, but 2014 sparked its fair share of sociopolitical debate, spurred by a series of deplorable and remarkable events.

In May, there were two significantly different occurrences that changed the world of sports — the surfacing of the racist audio recordings made by former Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and the drafting of the NFL’s first openly gay player by the St. Louis Rams, Michael Sam.

For Sterling, his comments were lethal, leading to his unquestioned exile from the league by a commissioner in his first couple months on the job, Adam Silver. It illustrated and set the precedent for a zero tolerance policy in professional sports regarding racism. The ruling likely played a role in Atlanta Hawks’ General Manager Danny Ferry’s indefinite leave after controversial comments he made later in the season regarding the Miami Heat’s Luol Deng.

For Sam, his bravery to do what no person has done before in what many consider to be the “manliest” of all sports set a precedent of its own. It’s bridged a gap and denounced the idea of sexual orientation being a deciding factor in employment.

Socioeconomic standing versus the government dishing out the money to host the world’s biggest sporting event was the basis of the World Cup protests in Rio de Janeiro and throughout Brazil over the summer. In a country economically struggling due to decisions made by a government under fire, the protests illuminated the billions spent to build soccer stadiums, all while locals continue to live in appalling conditions. For some, it was a political slap in the face.

More recently, domestic violence was given a face, that of former Ravens running back Ray Rice. After an Atlantic City casino released a shocking security tap of Rice throwing a punch at his current wife (then fiancée), suddenly every incident of domestic violence in the NFL and other leagues became top news, scarring reputations and putting pressure on the perpetrators, a good portion of whom were getting away with it. The seemingly weekly headlines led to a new domestic violence policy in the NFL and increased awareness.

At the University of North Carolina, one of the most revered institutions in the country, an academic scandal was uncovered that tarnished the Tar Heel reputation. A handful of students registered for classes that did not exist and received grades that were not earned. It’s a problem the school has yet to fully recover from.

Then there was the debate centered around whether the Washington Redskins should change their name. Owner Dan Snyder has fought hard to keep the ‘Skins brand, while other executives, Native American organizations and, yes, columnists have lobbied for a change.

Speaking of lobbying for change, athletes all over the country, including the “King” himself, Lebron James, reacted and denounced the recent Eric Gardner ruling. James and his teammates wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts in protest, while others made choking gestures after scoring touchdowns.

Both positively and negatively, sports certainly played its role in altering opinions and affecting policy. In a way, it always has.

Sports has done its part in exposing problems, as well as fixing them, but it’s time to learn from our mistakes in 2015 and simply play ball.