On Jonathan Papelbon, Obama, Guns and What Athletes Can and Can't Say

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterApril 18, 2013

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 12: Closing pitcher Jonathan Papelbon #58 of the Philadelphia Phillies celebrates a save after defeating the Miami Marlins 3-1 at Citizens Bank Park on September 12, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

In the last two presidential elections, several members of the Philadelphia Phillies openly campaigned for Barack Obama. Jonathan Papelbon was not one of them.

Yesterday, Papelbon was talking to CSN Philly about the bombings in Boston—Papelbon used to live near the blast area—and he said how unsafe he feels at sporting events, specifically being so close to the fans. 

On that notion, Papelbon and I agree, stadiums and the players (and fans) are not nearly as safe as we should be. The thing is...Papelbon took his clearly emotional yet justifiable fears and went...off book. Via The700Level.com:

I don't feel comfortable doing that. I really, truly don't. Today's day and age has gotten so crazy, every, you know…all this stuff going on and, you know, shoot, man, Obama wants to take our guns from us and everything and you got this kind of stuff (the Boston bombing) going on, it's a little bit insane for me, man. I really don't even know how to take it.

OK, look, I know that gun control is a big issue in society right now and I know that there are a lot of people in this world who actually believe the president is trying to take away their guns. I also get that Papelbon is legitimately scared after a street he walked down for years was bombed. But to somehow correlate the two into a sound bite about the safety of being in a stadium is severely wrong-headed for a baseball player in that situation.

Again, I agree with Papelbon that stadiums aren't safe enough and it doesn't take much for a maniac in the stands to attack a player who is shaking hands, signing autographs or giving a few high-fives. This is a different world we live in than when most of us were kids. The rules—and in some cases the access and ability to interact with celebrities—have to change.

But what in the world does that have to do with Obama, or guns, or Obama taking our guns? Does the Phillies closer want to start packing in the bullpen? Those fans on Ashburn Alley in Philly can get pretty rowdy late in the game, but he tried to combine two very disparate topics into one talking point.

The gun control debate is our nation's most polarizing issue right now, so it's no surprise a famous athlete would use his stature in the community—and his ability to talk into a microphone and have everyone in the country hear him—to share his thoughts.

But...well...should he? 


Athletes speaking their minds

Should Papelbon have mentioned Obama taking our guns away at all, let alone in the context of the Boston bombing?

Let's answer that two ways.

First, specifically: No. Papelbon was a moron for saying the line he did, even if it was in context of a confusing and emotional time for him. The president is not actually going door to door with a bucket asking law-abiding citizens to hand in their firearms. That's not even close to what the gun control debate really is, and for someone like Papelbon to make a flippant comment like that on television doesn't help anything.

Now, more generally: Was Papelbon right to make a comment, any comment, about today's hottest political fight? Yes and no.

Yes, Papelbon is entitled to his opinion and if someone is going to put a microphone in front of his face and ask him about a societal issue—the Boston bombing is certainly a societal issue—he is entitled to use that time to make his point. If Jimmy Rollins and other members of the team can stand hand in hand with Obama at a rally on an off day, Papelbon is well within his limits to say something before a game that may not jibe with the current path our President hopes policy will go.

And then there's the "no" side of whether or not he should have commented. It's the same "no" that would pertain to Rollins or any other player on a team sport who delves into political commentary.


Can sports be apolitical?

"Republicans buy shoes too," is the old saying attributed to Michael Jordan about his not speaking out on societal or political issues. That is the go-to line whenever athletes jump into political pools. More to the point of this specific issue with Papelbon, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians and the wholly apolitical not only buy shoes, but shirts, jerseys, caps and tickets to support their local teams.

We want to root for our favorite teams without having to necessarily agree with the beliefs of the players, coaches or owners.

If you are a liberal in the Philadelphia area, you must hate the comment Papelbon made this week, making it difficult to root for the guy the next time he comes in to close a game. 

Last year when Rollins was stumping around town for President Obama, the conservative fans must have been incredibly annoyed as well. Hearing an athlete talk politically forces fans to acknowledge that players have affiliations outside of our favorite team. 


The greater issue

This concern isn't just about guns, or Papelbon. Players on the same team have different views on the same topic, and it's up to fans to either ignore those beliefs or make a conscious decision to root for (or against) that player accordingly. 

I don't want to suddenly make this a story about Tim Tebow, but he is the best example of an athlete with a set of beliefs—religious, political or otherwise—shaping his fanbase. It can be hard to root for a team when you know a player on the roster has different beliefs than you. You know that his personal success earns him more fame and more money, both of which can be used to spread the word of those beliefs.

In a way, rooting for him to help the team can be a tacit approval of everything else. At the same time, he's just one member of a team that includes many other players, some of whom feel the exact opposite. Are we, as fans, just supposed to ignore it all?

Most fans root for a team because that team plays the closest to our house. That's how we usually choose our sports allegiances: proximity and familial lineage. For generations, sports fans haven't cared who owns the team or how they got the money to afford a professional sports franchise in the first place. The team is close, we can go to the games and watch them on TV, and the rest never mattered.

We love our local athletes if they can hit, run and pitch better than the guys from the other city, even if the players on that team are actually more likable guys or fall in line closer to our system of beliefs.

We never had to care about all this other stuff in the past because the players were never this accessible during their careers. Now, thanks to 24-hour sports networks, Twitter, etc., we know about so much it makes it harder to be a fan.

Now, I'm not asking for us to go back to the era of don't ask-don’t tell, or whatever the proper vernacular in sports may be, but I do wonder if we simply know too much about our team-sport athletes.



I know I'm a hypocrite, both as a writer and as a sports fan, for even suggesting that we know too much. I get that.

We want our athletes to be themselves and share their lives and experiences with us. We certainly want them to be good talkers, so it gives us stuff (like this) to write. So if this article scares Papelbon or the next Papelbon out of talking to the media, I've just cut off my own face to prove a point to my head. Or whatever the expression is. 

Just because an athlete says something we don’t like, or says something socially uninformed—such as saying the president of the United States wants to round up all the firearms of law-abiding citizens—doesn't mean we shouldn't want them to say it. Right? Besides, who are we to stop our athletes from talking? Writers? Reporters? Please. 

We live in a day and age where people can become their own private publishing house. If someone has something to say, they'll find a way to say it, stupid as it may be. We should probably just embrace that.


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