Should Calvin Johnson shut up and stay out of politics? | Opinion

Detroit Free Press

“Please keep politics out of sports!”

“Be fair to both views.”

“Who cares?”

These were some of the — ahem — nicer comments I received in emails last week after I wrote an article about Calvin Johnson.

The former Detroit Lions receiver joined state Rep. Joe Tate on a Zoom call to criticize President Donald Trump’s pandemic response that has led to an economic fallout and the postponement of Big Ten football. Johnson said the marijuana dispensaries he owns near college towns have been affected.

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The emails were nothing compared to the notifications I received on Twitter.

“Who gives a (bleep) what Calvin Johnson has to say? He’s a whining disaster (who) supports Joe Biden …” wrote @MikeBre93842067.

And those notifications were nothing compared to comments readers posted on the article itself on

“Please keep politics out of sports!” Keith K. wrote.

 “Why are you running an article about a former professional athlete’s political opinions? The sports section should be about sports,” Henry B. wrote.

More than 150 comments were posted on the article. And it got me thinking about sports and politics. Should we separate the two? Is it unfair to conflate the two worlds for readers who only look to sports as a distraction from the rest of life, especially during this stressful time?

I get it. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a fan who loves sports. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you love the athletes themselves or care what they think or support off the field. If you’re that kind of fan, I can understand why watching a game or following news of your favorite team, only to get bombarded with images or articles about athletes making political statements, might feel like a betrayal. You expect one thing and get something else. Like biting into an eclair filled with mayonnaise.

Truly, I get it. And not just because eclairs are kind of gross no matter what they’re filled with.

The only thing I can tell you is that sports and politics always have been linked. Ancient Roman politicians figured out by the first century B.C. that hosting state-funded gladiator battles gained them the favor of the public. Even emperors such as Caligula, Titus, Hadrian and Commodus are believed to have dabbled in sports by fighting as gladiators.

There are of course many recent examples in our own country of the uncomfortable dance between politics and sports. And you need to look no further than a president’s involvement with football.

No, not President Trump. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt basically saved football when he invited coaches from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House and told them to make the game safer. Football had become wildly dangerous and even deadly. The game was facing strong criticism and even the threat of abolition. It’s hard to imagine any football fan being against sports mixing with politics in this instance.

What Johnson did last week is nothing new. His appearance was part of a virtual roundtable discussion organized in support of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, but famous athletes stumping for politicians on both sides of the aisle has been going on for a long time. In 1960, Jackie Robinson campaigned full-time for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign.

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Maybe you’re a bigger fan of Michael Jordan’s approach. He was the biggest sports star of his generation but chose to stay away from making political statements or advocating for Black issues. Yes, it was a different time. But even back then, when Jordan explained his choice to remain silent because “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” his words felt hollow and selfish, which he acknowledged recently in the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance,” even if he claims now that it was a joke.

So wasn’t Johnson also acting out of financial self-interest? Not exactly. He spoke in general about the tax revenue that has been lost because of shuttered businesses due to COVID-19. And he spoke more broadly about the failure of federal leadership during the pandemic and the lack of modeling behavior such as wearing a mask and social distancing. His concerns and criticism were not only attached to his financial interests.

Several readers assumed the Free Press was taking sides by writing the article about Johnson.

“Fair journalism..  now I’ll wait to read your article of a player criticizing Biden,” one reader wrote to me in an email. “I’m waiting.”

I can tell you this: The Free Press is dedicated to fairness. If a Hall of Fame-caliber player from our state speaks publicly on President Trump’s behalf at an organized event, the Free Press will cover it.

My guess is that public political activism will only increase among athletes. Attitudes appear to be changing. A recent Gallup poll found that 65% of American adults support recent protests against racial injustice. Yet the divide among us remains stark: 95% of Democrats support the protests, but only 22% of Republicans do.

When the NFL finally arrived Thursday night, that division clearly remained. At the season opener in Kansas City, some of the nearly 16,000 fans at Arrowhead Stadium booed as the Chiefs and Texans linked arms in a moment of silence to support unity.

I have no answer for any of this. But I think it’s going to be hard for us to move forward as a country, and certainly as sports fans, if we can’t at least respectfully listen to each other.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content. 

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