There’s a common view that sport is anti-politics, anti-freedom of speech; this appears to have grown alongside the deep political schism that exists in the world today. 

‘Stick to sports’ is the practice of fans telling vocal, and often politically active, athletes to stick to their day job and to not publicly express an opinion on larger societal issues.

The suggestion from fans to athletes has always been unreasonable, conflicting, and hegemonic — requiring an athlete to promptly shut up based solely on the fact that a fan appreciates what they do.

Fans expect conformity and want athletes not to speak their mind about anything beyond the subject of their occupation, especially silencing an opinion when it expresses a contrasting perspective.

If you frequent Twitter or the comments sections of any sports media outlet, you likely already know February was a controversial month for Eugenie Bouchard, Dexter Fowler, and Kyrie Irving.

Bouchard made waves by sharing her personal life on social media, including paying up her losing end of a Super Bowl wager by partaking in a date with a lucky fan at a Brooklyn Nets game and posing for the 2017 edition of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue.

St. Louis Cardinals centre fielder Dexter Fowler referred to his Iranian-born wife when he called US President Donald Trump’s travel ban “unfortunate.”

Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving gave his own version of ‘alternative facts’ by claiming the world is flat, and he discussed alien conspiracy theories in a podcast with his teammates Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.

In one form or another, each athlete was told to stick to their respective sport.

While Irving may truly believe the truth is out there, and Fowler is well within his own right to speak his mind on the matters that directly impact his family, the backlash suffered by Bouchard stands out among the three.

Unlike Irving’s cliche conspiracies or the personal reason behind Fowler’s political opposition, Bouchard never expressed a specific opinion. She was criticized for her actions — painted as an implicit distraction from her career.

The immense social media criticism she received was for simply living her life: sitting courtside at an NBA game or exercizing her willingness to focus on her brand and step out beyond her field of play with modelling.

It’s no secret that the objective behind ‘stick to sports’ is to create a culture of silence among athletes, the very people who have shifted to the centre of culture. As multiple platforms have shortened the traditional outreach actors and musicians have, the collective attention devoted to sports remains universal.

At the young age of 23, Bouchard has earned every right not to be criticized for living her life in the manner that she deems fit — a simple enough idea. Whether Bouchard finds her way back to the finals of a major tournament or not, she, like every other athlete, shouldn’t have her successes juxtaposed with her actions or opinions.

In 2017, a year where intolerance is frowned upon and equality is preached, every athlete should be entitled to have their opinions heard and not be criticized for the actions of their own free will. Athletes are not only contracts, walking advertisements, or a laundry list of every championship they’ve ever won; they are no different than you and I.

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