Criticize athletes like Colin Kaepernick mixing politics with sports all you want, but it's here for good

After the 49ers-Bills game Sunday, the losing team's quarterback stepped to the podium for his postgame press conference. The primary line of questioning wasn't about football.

"To pay homage," Colin Kaepernick said as he wore a Muhammad Ali T-shirt. The quarterback's team had just lost to the Bills, 45-16, dropping the 49ers to 1-5, but that didn't seem to be Kaepernick's primary concern, either. He went on.

"He was someone that fought a very similar fight and was trying to do what is right for people. And for me to have someone like that come before me, that is huge. He is someone that helped paved the way for this to happen. What he did and what he stood for, people remember him more for that than they do as a boxer. I can't let him die in vain."

This wasn't an isolated guy -- right or wrong -- hijacking a sports moment to talk politics. Kaepernick turning a space once reserved solely for sports talk into a divisive political moment is the new normal.

Colin Kaepernick's protest for racial equality is much bigger than football. USATSI

This presidential campaign has torn down the old rules and replaced them with fewer -- if any -- boundaries. Entertainment and politics can seem utterly inseparable. Sports, now, too.

You don't like or want your politics hanging out with your sports? You see that as a violation of your personal escapism, or just a cross-pollination that simply doesn't belong together? That's fair. It's reasonable. But you're going to have to get used to it anyway.

As those political sensibilities on the presidential campaign trail and in the homes of voters have shifted, so, too, have athletes' perspectives on sharing -- often aggressively -- their own political, non-sports views.

The days of Michael Jordan reportedly saying "Republicans buy shoes, too" are over. In its place -- spurred largely by the violence against unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, and likely this highly divisive presidential election -- are examples like those set by Jordan's basketball heir, LeBron James.

Sports are the ultimate meritocracy, but that also produces a world of copy cats led by the best among them. Hard asses are in? Hire 'em! The West Coast offense is the thing? Do it! Now it's an up-tempo style? That's the solution! Wait, everyone's shooting 3s? We need to, too!

And, of course, the brand leaders and the true, rare superstars shape how others will follow. Their style becomes their colleagues' tone.

So credit, like it or not, LeBron James. In many ways, it started four years ago when LeBron was an early celebrity voice to protest the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. LeBron hasn't looked back, working, as Kaepnerick pointed out Ali once did, to meld his sports greatness with a less popular, more important voice in things that matter. This social justice advocacy on the part of LeBron transitioned fully to politics a few weeks ago when he endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

You might hate it, or his politics, but we should commend him. And not only because I fervently agree with his view, and the remarkable stakes at play in this election.

This still was a guy with a brand to protect, who is very much focused on his legacy and who, despite it all, craves to be liked, jumping into the most anger-filled political argument perhaps in generations in this country. It was brave because it will make him not only unpopular but hated by many who support Clinton's opponent.

It's the right thing to do.

He's not alone. His friends -- Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony -- opened the ESPYs this summer by addressing the growing list of black men killed by law enforcement.

Let Schilling preach conservatism. Let LeBron lend his massive brand to the left. Let Kaepernick kneel at the national anthem and try to compare himself to Ali after a first start in the NFL in a long time, and let Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chastise him for it.

It used to be considered impolite to talk politics, religion or money with anyone other than family. But that was before Facebook, Twitter, shows like Basketball Wives, TMZ Sports and the over-personalization and celeb-reification of athletes. And before technology captured and showed clearly the gross injustice of so many black men being gunned down by those charged with protecting them. And sports, one of our more diverse domains in our country, has many black men at its highest levels.

Of course some would -- should -- speak up here. This is 2016, when everyone feels not just comfortable but required to share their most personal views, moments, crises and inner thoughts.

What is more personal, and seems more of a crisis, than to watch those like you killed, over and over and over again?

This isn't isolated to the left. Curt Schilling, a retired baseball star who put in one of the gutsiest and most memorable moments in his game's history, has channeled his own celebrity and place in our games in the cause of his conservatism. Rex Ryan has stumped for the Republican nominee for president. On and on it goes.

So widespread are athletes and coaches doubling as political proxies, players in the Philadelphia Eagles locker rooms are trying to agree not to talk about the presidential election. Why? Because it's a world where, without a pledge to do so, the opposite would happen.

The unspoken rule to keep politics out of sports is over.

Let's embrace it. Debate is good, and if this experiment in American democracy is to be validated by history -- and I believe and deeply hope it will be -- then the marketplace of ideas must be embraced. Let freedom of thought and expression ring, and let the right voices and ideas win out over time.

Let Schilling preach conservatism. Let LeBron lend his massive brand to the left. Let Kaepernick kneel at the national anthem and try to compare himself to Ali after a first start in the NFL in a long time, and let Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chastise him for it.

I still want to believe that in the long run, our better selves will win out because of not just who we are but because of the country and system and rules our founders put into place.

You don't like your politics mixed with your sports? I get it. But we should all agree we love this country above all else, regardless of our differences on who we think should be running it or what ideology should be its guiding light. And that requires just what feels so wrong: Talk, from whatever quarter in our culture, about the most important and difficult parts of who we are and what we believe.

National Columnist

Bill Reiter began his career as a newspaper journalist before becoming a national columnist at CBS Sports. He currently hosts a national CBS Sports radio show from New York City from 6 to 10 p.m. ET called... Full Bio

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