Amidst all the political bickering in the United States, there is one thing that unites us as Americans.
It’s our love of sports.
We follow our teams with a passion and at no time of the year is that more apparent than during the weeks leading up to February 3rd — Super Bowl Sunday.
On that day, we will be divided only by our support for one or the other of the two teams competing for America’s professional football championship. You can bet that people from all points on the political spectrum will be rooting for the New England Patriots… likewise, for the Los Angeles Rams.
This is when sports is at its political best — bringing people together to forge connections.
The problem is it doesn’t always work out that way, especially when you think about athletic competition in the international arena.
Sometimes, sports can be a diplomatic tool… sometimes, though, participants can become political pawns.
There have been Olympic boycotts and Olympic triumphs over evil — most notably the success of Jessie Owens, a black American, at the 1936 Berlin Games, which the Nazis had planned to use to underscore their belief in the superiority of the “Aryan race.”
There was the attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. And there was the hopeful sign of teams from North and South Korea marching under a unified flag at last year’s winter games in PyeongChang.
But obviously, you don’t have to look just to the Olympics to see the potential for sports to promote peace.
In the early 1970’s, an exchange of table tennis (ping-pong) players marked the beginning of a thaw in relations between the United States and China.
And in 1995, just days after the formal end of the bloody Bosnian war, the country played its first football match as an independent nation. It was sports that helped heal the scars of ethnic hatred — the team walking onto the field in jerseys bought at the last minute at a sports shop in Zagreb.
We hope all our athletes will have such a positive impact on society — that they will be able to spend their competitive careers, as the Olympic oath puts it, “in the true spirit of sportsmanship… for the glory of sport.”
But what about an athlete who finds himself to be one of those aforementioned political pawns?
Which brings us to the story of Enes Kanter.
Kanter is a Turkish basketball player and a very good one — good enough to be drafted in 2011 to play professional ball in the United States. Recently, his team — the New York Knicks — was scheduled to play a special game in London against the Washington Wizards. Within days of the trip, word got out that Kanter refused to go.
He told the team that he feared for his life. Kanter insisted that because he had chosen to take a stand against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he could be kidnapped or worse if he left North America.
In an essay for the Washington Post — reposted in Turkish on the Post’s website — Kanter wrote:
“… anyone who speaks out against him is a target. I am definitely a target. And Erdogan wants me back in Turkey where he can silence me.”
There are reports that Turkish prosecutors have been seeking an international arrest warrant for Kanter, accusing him of membership in a terrorist organization — a reference to this athlete’s support for Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who has lived in exile in the United States for decades.
The younger man admits he has formed a bond with his fellow exile and dissident, who has been accused by the Erdogan government of instigating a bloody coup attempt in 2016.
“I cannot go back to Turkey, so every time I go visit Mr. Gulen it’s like I’m going home,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Company, adding “I would say he is like family to me.”
The price Kanter has paid for his candor has been high. During a recent interview with CNN host S. E. Cupp, he noted that he has not seen his family in Turkey since 2015. He also made clear that he worries about their safety, saying “if they (the Turkish government) were to see any little text message, they will all be in jail.”
Cupp posted a clip of the interview on her Twitter feed and if anything, the comments it generated from Turkey indicate a country as divided as, well, the United States. Most were supportive of Kanter, but there were plenty of others that said he has blood on his hands.
It sort of looked like the kind of thing you would see on a Twitter post critical of, say, President Trump.
In Kanter’s case, things have escalated to the point where he has acknowledged receiving recent death threats.
He’s back on the basketball court and continuing to speak out when he can — personifying the intersection of politics and sport.
And as he does, he takes inspiration from another athlete whose name has became synonymous with controversy.
Colin Kaepernick can’t get a job in American football anymore because he decided to engage in a silent protest against racial injustice in this country. He decided to kneel instead of standing at the start of games when the national anthem was played. Some said he was disrespecting the US flag, the anthem and all those who serve in the military. But others pointed out that “taking a knee” is something athletes do all the time to stop play when someone is injured.
In this case, Kaepernick was calling attention to an injured country.
Kanter indicates he takes solace and strength from Kaepernick’s actions and has taken the American athlete’s advice to heart.
It’s advice that has become the theme of a nationwide ad campaign featuring the one-time NFL quarterback:
“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”