/Politics on the Field of Play

Politics on the Field of Play

Alejandro Bedoya of Philadelphia Union yelling into a microphone after scoring a goal during Sunday’s game.
Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

What’s the most political thing that’s ever happened during a sporting event? I don’t mean beforehand, or afterward, but in the field of play. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling doesn’t count; neither does Tommie Smith and John Carlos putting up their fists at the 1968 Olympics; nor does John Elway writing an impassioned letter asking the Senate Judiciary Committee to confirm Neil Gorsuch, even though he did it on official Broncos letterhead. Those are moments of anticipation or reflection, not forged in the heat of battle. The best I can come up with is Cubs outfielder Rick Monday stopping two protesters from burning the flag on the field at Dodger Stadium back in 1976, but that may have been less a political statement than it was a former member of the Marine Reserves taking it to a couple of hippies. It is against the very nature of athletes, trained to concentrate solely on the task ahead of them and to shut out all else, to think about the real world while they’re on the field. Get too lost in ethical or political thought, and a linebacker will send you into the fourth row.

Which was why it was remarkable when Alejandro Bedoya, a midfielder for the first-place Philadelphia Union of the MLS and a longtime player for the United States Men’s National Team, after scoring a goal against DC United on Sunday, sprinted to an on-field microphone and bellowed what many, many Americans were feeling after the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend.

“Congress, do something now,” Bedoya yelled. “End gun violence. Let’s go.”

In the midst of everything else going on over the weekend, Bedoya’s statement got a bit lost — after all, he’s just a player for a minor (but first place!) team in the country’s fifth-most-popular sports league, screaming into the wind and the ether like the rest of us. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it’ll be considered a watershed moment. I bet we see a lot more of this in the coming months and years. I bet this becomes pretty normal.

Bedoya has never been known as a particularly political figure, but athletes usually aren’t. He’s a veteran American soccer player, which is to say he played in some international leagues before coming back home to the MLS, where he could shine a little brighter and make some money before retirement. USMNT fans have always found him likable if a bit frustrating on a national stage, and he’s generally considered the sort of perfectly capable player that you ultimately need to do better than if you’re ever going to be considered a serious contender on the World Cup stage. He’s … just a guy.

But his statement will almost certainly end up what he’s most known for. The statement, made on prime-time national television (on Fox Sports 1 no less, a channel that in recent years has begun to take on the reactionary veneer of its news sibling), is not particularly incisive or even inherently political: “Please find a way for people to stop shooting other people in mass numbers” isn’t exactly the most extremist position to take, or even much of a position at all. But that may have been a factor of Bedoya’s time constraints, what with him being on an active playing field at the time: On his Instagram, he offered an actual policy position, saying “no civilian should need weapons of war or a magazine with 100 rounds,” which doesn’t sound extreme to me but surely will be heard as such by some. Bedoya went on to play the rest of the game, one Philadelphia won 5-1.

The MLS — which has drawn criticism for its insistence on keeping politics out of its games in the past, and at one point this year refused to preemptively ban right-wing extremists from NYCFC games (before backing off that non-position) — decided not to fine or suspend Bedoya, releasing a statement saying that said, “We understand that our players and staff have strong and passionate views on this issue.” Which, all told, seems to crack open the door a little bit for future statements from players on politics, without fear of reprisal. Don’t be surprised if MLS players — who, generally speaking, tend to have a bit more international exposure and be a bit more socially progressive than, say, your average white American baseball player — notice that and push the envelope again, in a way not all that dissimilar to Colin Kaepernick first kneeling in an NFL preseason game and inspiring many, many other players to do the same in the coming weeks. The NFL eventually put a semi-kibosh on that, Jerry Jones–style, but it was a two-year headache to do so, and it’s probably still not over anyway. This won’t be the last MLS player statement.

And why should it be? Bedoya’s in-game maneuver opens the door to all sorts of possibilities. The genius of his timing is that it was during a moment of celebration, right after he scored a goal, a time when players are given the most creative latitude in any sport. Last year, the NFL loosened restrictions on touchdown celebrations, which led to an explosion of player creativity that gave the league some of its most positive press in years. If a player can’t kneel, maybe he can express himself in a different, more playful fashion. Last year the Vikings played duck, duck, goose after a touchdown; the Seahawks pretended to have a baseball player charge the mound after being hit; the Titans had a player bowl the football and knock down all his teammates. Aren’t there funny ways to express sentiments otherwise discouraged? Maybe a player pretends to sing the national anthem while other players kneel; maybe someone does a Trump impersonation; maybe there’s a mock presidential debate. Maybe there’s imagery that no one’s come up with yet — Megan Rapinoe’s celebratory extended arms after scoring a goal is something she’d done plenty of times before, but it gained new symbolic relevance in the wake of her feud with President Trump. Athletes are more creative than I am. I’m sure they can come up with something.

The point is that athletic activism is going public at an unprecedented level, for reasons that are pretty obvious, and as it increases, leagues are going to find more and more ways to try to tamp it down and make sure their corporate sponsors aren’t rattled. The on-field statement, pioneered by Bedoya but sure to be mastered by NFL and NBA players, is the next logical step. Politics and the upcoming presidential election are going to be inescapable over the next 15 months. That it would leak onto the field of play itself was inevitable.