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MORRISSEY: Protests are just the beginning of the discussion in sports

It’s not going away.

The Day of Protest, or whatever you want to call the NFL’s show of unity Sunday, wasn’t a one-and-done moment. Something happened inside football stadiums across the country, something with a locomotion all its own, and it hopefully will force teams, players and fans in all sports to talk about the issues of inequality and police treatment of people of color.

In the NFL and the NBA, leagues with huge African-American representation, that’s probably not going to be an issue among the athletes. But for Major League Baseball, which is still majority white and still carries the vestiges of its small-town, 19th-century roots, it has the potential to tear apart teams.

For fans who look to sports to help them escape their everyday lives a few hours at a time, there’s no escape anymore. They’re being forced to think about the racial gulf in the United States, whether they want to or not.

Bears players link arms during the national anthem before their game against the Steelers on Sunday. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times)

The discussion isn’t going away. It’s going to be very tricky, but it also has the potential to make people confront things that too often have been ignored. Judging by the public reaction to NFL players kneeling or locking arms during the anthem Sunday, we’re about a million miles away from common ground.

President Trump’s comments about NFL players who kneel during the anthem — ‘‘sons of bitches,’’ he called them — were so divisive that even someone as publicly apolitical as Hornets owner Michael Jordan reacted.

‘‘One of the fundamental rights this country is founded on was freedom of speech, and we have a long tradition of nonviolent, peaceful protest,’’ he said in a statement to the Charlotte Observer. ‘‘Those who exercise the right to peacefully express themselves should not be demonized or ostracized.’’

‘‘At a time of increasing divisiveness and hate in this country, we should be looking for ways to work together and support each other and not create more division,’’ he added.

It sounds as though someone wrote that for Jordan, but it really doesn’t matter. That Jordan spoke up showed how raw the nerve was that Trump had exposed. The former Bulls superstar is a master product hawker who once explained his neutral stance on political issues by reportedly saying, ‘‘Republicans buy shoes, too.’’

It’s safe to say the unity that NFL players displayed won’t be the case in every other pro sport. The NFL is about 68 percent African-American, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. The NBA is about 75 percent black, and players are expected to protest during the anthem this season. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he’ll offer his players the opportunity to tell the crowd their views via the video board before home games.

There seems to be unity in NASCAR against kneeling for the anthem, a gesture that has been made primarily by black athletes. Team owner Richard Petty was applauded for saying that anyone who doesn’t stand for the anthem ‘‘ought to be out of the country. Period. What got ’em where they’re at? The United States.’’

That and slavery.

‘‘So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans,’’ Trump tweeted. ‘‘They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag — they said it loud and clear!’’

NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. disagreed via Twitter: ‘‘All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests ‘Those who
make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable’ — JFK.’’

The real test might end up being Major League Baseball, which is 59 percent white, 28.5 percent Latin and 8.3 percent black. Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first major-league player to kneel during the anthem when he took a knee before the Rangers-A’s game Saturday. Baseball has a much more conservative bent than the NBA or the NFL. It’s not uncommon to hear country music before and after games in an MLB clubhouse. The chance for friction could be heightened by anything that might be viewed as anti-American.

It’s precarious, which is why Cubs manager Joe Maddon recently found himself dancing around the spat between Trump and the NBA champion Warriors about a White House visit. Maddon first said it’s ‘‘dangerous’’ when people stop respecting the White House and the office of the president. The next day, he said he understood why players such as Warriors star Stephen Curry, who declined a White House invitation, responded the way he did to Trump.

At least give the anti-Trump athletes credit: They haven’t hidden behind excuses the way cowardly anti-Obama athletes did when they were invited to the White House. Curry says he doesn’t like what Trump stands for. Other athletes turned down an Obama White House invitation because of personal reasons, family matters, hunting trips, etc. Sure.

It’s true that sports brings together people of different races and backgrounds who might not otherwise mix. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they become close friends away from their sport or that they start to see the world differently than they did before. It’s getting better, but there’s a long way to go.

I’ll be happy when we’re beyond protests and discussion. I’ll be happy when something tangible gets done to effect change. But this will have to do for now.

It’s not going away.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com

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