DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Football fans will be getting in some quality time with their televisions this weekend and next as the NFL regular season ends and the playoffs gets started. But many of the year's biggest sports stories had nothing to do with wins and losses on the field. Kevin Blackistone is a sports analyst for television and radio, and he's a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. He came to our studios to chat about the year in sports. Kevin, thanks for coming in.
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thanks for the invite.
GREENE: Well, let's start with the NFL.
GREENE: And, you know, as a year really when what happened off the field got more attention than on the field - and some players accused of child abuse, spousal abuse, bullying other players - I mean, was this maybe the most embarrassing year for the NFL in memory?
BLACKISTONE: It's got to be. No question. I mean, what a tumultuous year for the NFL. No one's talking about Seattle winning the Super Bowl. People are interested in the season now, but clearly, the most transcendent stories from the NFL this year are what you just talked about, which have to do with player conduct.
GREENE: What's your read on how the league has dealt with this so far and the likelihood that they can get past this?
BLACKISTONE: Extremely poorly. I mean, they should be on the show "Scandal" right now for the way they've handled this - these crises. Clearly, they've come up with a way now going forward to try and deal with personal conduct matters. They've got to come up with some sort of evenhanded policy and not the situation they've had this year, which is seemingly - send a trial balloon into the air and see how the public reacts and then decide to mete out punishment that way.
You know, the only good thing that has come out of this, certainly on the domestic violence front, is that once again sports has provided a light on a very serious societal issue unlike any other corner of what we do. And because of that, there's been a great national conversation about how to deal with this problem, no matter if it's in athletics or just in your community, and that's probably a positive thing.
GREENE: You know, it's interesting you bring that up because there was one other story in the NFL that kind of led to a national conversation in a way, and that was the story of one young NFL draft pick Michael Sam, who came out as gay...
GREENE: ...And made a lot of news. He's now no longer playing with any team. How do you sort of capture that story and what it meant both for sports and the dialogue over being gay?
BLACKISTONE: I think it changed our viewpoint of what masculinity can be in our society.
GREENE: What do you mean?
BLACKISTONE: That a football player - a football player could be crowned as the best defensive player in the Southeastern Conference, which is the best college football conference in America, could be drafted into the NFL after he was filmed kissing his boyfriend upon hearing news that he was drafted and yet, could be viewed as a football player and also dispel any notion that he would be a distraction to a team. He certainly wasn't in college where his teammates knew for most of his senior year that he was in fact gay. He wasn't with the Rams, although he didn't make the team. But then the Dallas Cowboys, America's team, went out and picked him up to see if he could fit into their program.
GREENE: And are you convinced that he did not make those teams because he just didn't have the NFL talents on the field to be part of those teams?
BLACKISTONE: You know, I really am from having talked to a couple of people who were concerned about his size and his speed and the fact that he might be what they call a 'tweener, in between two positions rather than being a dominate of one position in the NFL. But I don't think we've heard the last of him, and he has a stick-to-it-iveness about him if you read his narrative. I think he'll get another shot, and I think he can bounce back. He wouldn't be the first draft pick to have to fight and claw his way into the NFL.
GREENE: Let me ask you about two stories that came up in the NBA. Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers - racist comments...
GREENE: ...The entire country sees it. His own players are very outspoken about how they felt about that. Eric Garner dies in a chokehold on Staten Island...
GREENE: ...A very well-publicized case - unarmed black man. NBA players wear I can't breathe T-shirts to let their voices be heard. Do you see those as related, and what does that tell us about the culture?
BLACKISTONE: Absolutely. I think for the first time in a long time, we've seen athletes understand their collective strength and to empower themselves with that strength, to speak their mind about some very important issues that affect them particularly - with the Donald Sterling case and his bigoted comments that came out of his pillow talk with his paramour, and the players that played for him were sickened and disgusted by that. And in particular a player who didn't play for him, LeBron James, came out and said, if this man is associated with the NBA any longer, I'll refuse to play for it. So I think that was something that we have not seen in a long time.
And then you move to the I can't breathe campaign and the concern that these athletes have shown for what many in the black community like them believe are extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men by police in this country to join that protest visually with these T-shirts, which happens to be in violation of the NFL and, in the NBA, of their uniform policies. I like to see players engaged in their communities and feel a sense of empowerment.
GREENE: I feel like for sports fans, sometimes watching a ballgame...
GREENE: ...Is sort of a sense of release to get away from kind of politics, to get away from the news.
BLACKISTONE: It - sports has forever been an escapist arena with the media and for the public. But for those who play it, they are still part of society. And so they don't face any fewer problematic situations than anyone else. And when you're a young black man, whether you're in Ferguson, Missouri, unemployed, trying to figure out a way to make it to community college or whether you're in the NFL or the NBA making millions of dollars and hoping that you can drive home safely and not have to worry about an encounter that you may have with a police officer, I think all of that comes together. And I think they see themselves connected to that, and I think it's important that while people watch sports to escape from it, they realize that sports is always reminding us about what is going on in society.
GREENE: Kevin Blackistone is a sports analyst and a visiting journalism professor at the University of Maryland.
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