Leaders in athletics are narrowing gap between sports and politics, but it’s a complicated dynamic


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Nick Saban walking the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

We all know the story of Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, a resilient NFL quarterback, recently plagued by injury, kneels in protest of police brutality and racial unrest during the National Anthem. He faces scrutiny from football fans and sports naysayers alike. Due to widespread outrage among viewers and team owners deeming him too controversial, he is ostracized indefinitely from professional football.

Since then, athletes have increasingly pushed the envelope in terms of being outspoken about social justice. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and shooting of Jacob Blake led to NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS boycotts. Athletes across the country knelt and pleaded for change.

While some fans still prefer the “shut up and dribble” mentality, others have applauded players for their courage to speak up. Regardless of the reaction, being vocal today doesn’t necessarily result in a one-way ticket out of town.

Coaches and sports icons are also starting to join the conversation. Last week, University of Alabama football coach and West Virginia native Nick Saban penned a letter to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. Saban, along with former NBA star Jerry West, former NFL star Darryl Talley and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, urged Manchin to support the passage of voting rights legislation. Manchin, a Democrat, has made headlines for supporting the Senate filibuster which prevents legislation from passing with opposition from all 50 Senate Republicans.

The letter writes, “we are all certain that democracy is best when voting is open to everyone on a level playing field; the referees are neutral; and at the end of the game the final score is respected and accepted.”

It’s no secret that Saban has won over the hearts of an expansive Alabama fanbase. He’s won six national titles at the school since 2007. His name is synonymous with college football greatness and his success demands respect. Regardless of his status, speaking up about politics in the blood-red state of Alabama takes courage.

Furthermore, the current voting rights legislation being considered by Congress was constructed to address the lack of protections given to African Americans at the polls. The Southeastern Conference consists of 14 teams in 11 different states. According to the NCAA Race and Gender Demographics, 61 percent of football players in the SEC are Black. There’s an argument that coaches who are more vocal about racial justice may have a recruiting advantage, especially with families of athletes.

The issue here is that Saban added a footnote to the letter that contradicted his comments. He voiced his support for the Senate filibuster, which effectively prevents the legislation from passing. Senate Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to override the GOP filibuster. Essentially, Saban takes the same position as Manchin. The sentiment is there, but Saban’s support for the filibuster makes his letter come off as mildly performative.

Johnny Milas, a DePaul College of Law student, provided some insight on Saban’s actions. Milas believes that Saban’s intentions were good “because he publicly took a stance, something his peers would not do.” This point is valid because SEC football coaches tend to skirt any controversial discussions due to the culture. In the South, many view conflict avoidance as an appropriate means to keep everyone happy.  Saban has seemed to evolve more than the others. He was outspoken about Covid-19 vaccinations and now voting rights.

According to Haley Pennington, a University of Alabama alum and DePaul College of Law student, Saban also led Black Lives Matter marches in Tuscaloosa in 2020. She adds that she believes “when it comes to his players and community being directly impacted, he does what he can to protect them.” As someone who is responsible for many young and impressionable athletes, it’s hard to imagine a more positive quality for a coach to have.

Pennington also noted that the letter “was backed by good intentions and further sparks a conversation, especially since he is highly respected by people on both ends of the political spectrum.” In essence, his position holds massive power despite being a college football coach. Fans of all backgrounds come together at Bryant Denny stadium every fall Saturday. The communal nature of college football puts Saban in the middle of both sides. This position holds great responsibility and by sparking conversation, he’s paving the way for more thoughtful discourse.

Heidi Job, DePaul College of Law student and Tennessee native, said that she believes the voting rights bill should not be a partisan issue but it has been “met with staunch opposition from every Republican in the Senate.” For that, she admires Saban’s efforts “as a coach in a deeply Republican state for which he must have known he would receive backlash.” While he did receive an abundance of negativity in response, he also received praise from many.

“When people outside of Washington or the traditional news media call attention to important legislation like this, I think it raises awareness to folks who may not have it on their radar,” Job said. Despite Saban contradicting himself, his influence truly reaches far and wide. Just by bringing the bill into the limelight, he potentially introduced hundreds or thousands of people to it. Consequently, these people are able to research the bill and form their own educated opinions on the matter.

Some high-profile professional sports coaches, like the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr and the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, are known for being politically outspoken. For some speculative reason, that line is seldom crossed in college sports. While there is some obvious hesitancy on Saban’s part, he’s slowly but effectively blazing a trail for other college coaches. As the widely respected, larger-than-life king of college football, there’s no doubt he’s the best person for the task. For the sake of social justice, his role could be as big as any. But as we all say when we don’t have a clear answer, it’s complicated. Saban will have to decide whether being outspoken bears more importance than appeasing his fanbase.