Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Where sports and politics collide, Georgia loses


There have been many times when I’ve stepped into the dark underworld of social media to comment on a subject unrelated to bats, balls or the SEC that my words incite only the Internet’s version of a backhand: “Stick to sports!”

But rest assured: This is about sports.

It was about sports when Muhammad Ali used his platform to protest the war in Vietnam.

It was about sports when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised clenched, black-gloved fists against racial injustice.

It was about sports when Billie Jean King spoke, and Arthur Ashe spoke, and Jason Collins spoke, and when Branch Rickey made the boldest signing in professional sports history, and when countries have boycotted Olympics, and when Jesse Owens ran to glory and humiliated Adolf Hitler.

Sports often has been central to social justice. Athletes, teams, sports leagues, universities have a platform. Using that platform in the hope that it effects change should not bring about some mindless shallow and borderline Neanderthal response like, “Play ball and shut up. Fred, pass the pork rinds.” Sports’ ability to influence change should be embraced.

“Sport has the power to change the world,” Nelson Mandela said. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

It doesn’t matter to me whether you agree or disagree with the “homosexual lifestyle,” nor if you believe it runs contrary to your chosen religion (or, more accurately, how you perceive your religion’s doctrine). Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble and call your government leaders a bunch of idiots — those freedoms are yours to embrace.

But when a potential law effectively legalizes discrimination and infringes on someone else’s Constitutional rights — as Georgia House Bill 757 surely does — that’s a problem. It’s everybody’s problem. It’s a problem in the “real” world and the sports world.

I asked the NFL to respond to Georgia’s “religious liberty” bill — a backwards moniker if there ever was one — and the nation’s most powerful sports league responded with a forearm shiver to state legislators.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said , “NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard. Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”

As I wrote Friday, some statements force you to read between the lines. This one hit like a sledgehammer carrying the words, “No Super Bowl.”

Falcons owner Arthur Blank is building a new stadium for his team that is scheduled to open in 2017. The thought that Atlanta might not be allowed to host a Super Bowl, or possibly another major sports event like the Final Four, would not go over well with Blank. (The NCAA said it is “monitoring current events.”)

I don’t want to make this all about money because I’m sure the Falcons, Braves and Hawks, all of whom quickly followed the NFL with statements, have a moral compass and an understanding of what’s right or wrong. But sometimes that compass won’t lead them to speak out like a potential economic avalanche well.

And so, we had Blank saying, “One of my bedrock values is ‘Include Everyone.’ I strongly believe a diverse, inclusive and welcoming Georgia is critical to our citizens and the millions of visitors. House Bill 757 undermines these principles.”

And the Braves saying, “House Bill 757 is detrimental to our community and bad for Georgia. Our organization believes in an environment that is inclusive of all people. We are opposed to any law that endorses discrimination against anyone.”

And the Hawks saying, “The Hawks strongly believe in the values of inclusion, diversity and equal rights, core principles by which we operate our business and are essential elements in making Atlanta a leading global city.”

The Hawks had the only one of the four statements that didn’t directly reference the specific bill or the Georgia legislature. Not surprising. The team is trying to secure public funding for a renovation of Philips Arena.

But it was only three weeks ago when part-owner Grant Hill, speaking at a meeting for Georgia Prospers, a coalition of state businesses, said the “religious liberty” bill could harm Atlanta’s chances to land major events. “It is so important to keep alive the values of good sportsmanship, fairness and inclusion that were ingrained in me as an athlete,” he said.

The Hawks, in their defense, were the only pro sports team to participate in the annual Atlanta Pride Festival in October and gave out commemorative T-shirts. The Braves will have an “LGBT Night” for the sixth consecutive season. Both franchises also had specials shirts and hats for sale. The Falcons have not held a special event, but expect that to change, especially given the franchise recently was embarrassed when an NFL draft prospect said a Falcons assistant coach asked him during an interview, “Do you like men?” Not a good look, even if said jokingly.

Hill referenced the concepts of “fairness and inclusion.” How was this lost on Georgia legislators in the name of Christianity?

I’m Jewish. I guess I should just be happy I have a job and I’m allowed to live here, given that word circulated centuries ago that my ancestors killed Jesus.

Perhaps we should bring back public stoning?

Proponents amusingly suggest the bill protects the rights of free religion and free speech, when in fact it does just the opposite. It runs contrary to a Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage — and for all we know could open the door to discrimination against single parents, divorcees, vegetarians, Prius drivers and people who wear sweat socks with black dress shoes.

The NFL’s veiled threat to block a Super Bowl should go over great with the same legislators who only last week passed a tax break on tickets should the game be awarded. In other words, they’re so desperate to get the game that they’re willing to eat a potential $10 million in tax revenue.

The sports world reacted. Of course the sports world reacted.

Franchises and athletes are high-profile ambassadors for a city. Teams care about what people think, whether they will spend their money, whether free agents will want to come here to play or live. They care about hosting championships, bowls and All-Star games.

The NFL stripped Arizona of the 1992 Super Bowl and moved it to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., for the state’s refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Arizona might have lost the Super Bowl again in 2014 if Gov. Jan Brewer had not vetoed a law similar to the Georgia bill. (The league reportedly was pondering moving the game to Tampa, Fla., on short notice.)

It’s one thing for politicians to be so out of touch with reality. But how do they not see this backlash coming? How do they not expect sports teams and corporate America (Microsoft, Google, Home Depot, Coke) to denounce their knuckleheadedness?

If you’re looking for a punching bag in all this, start with Georgia state Sen. Greg Kirk, the bill’s sponsor. He referred to the corporate outrage the other day as a “scare tactic.” Then came this: “We have international businesses in this state who do business in countries that chop off the heads of homosexuals, and they never say a word about that.”

Sen. Kirk, the floor is now yours. And pick up your head.

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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.