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Sports is politics, politics is sports

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Long before vice president Mike Pence used a 49ers-Colts game as a backdrop for a political stunt, it was impossible to “stick to sports.” (Sam Riche/TNS)
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Quick hits with Kolsky

Anyone in the sports media who has ever had an original non-sports thought has heard the tired refrain — “stick to sports” — from a disgruntled consumer.

It’s a beautiful dream, in a way — I would like nothing more than to stick to sports (and television and movies and other fundamentally non-critical pursuits). But in 2017, it’s simply not a realistic possibility,

“Stick to sports” has now become a rallying cry for a group of fans who are perfectly comfortable with the new, repugnant fashion in which the political world has foisted itself upon the sports world. It’s code for “stick to the established order of things, don’t rock the boat.”

Well, the boat has been rocked. The presidential administration can’t go a week without embroiling itself in sports-related controversy and prominent athletes can’t hope to make it through a press conference without being asked to address political news.

Sports is politics. Politics is sports.

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Left is right

It’s hard to imagine anyone doubting the hypocrisy of NFL owners at this point, but some of them appear intent on driving that point home on a regular basis.

It was just over two weeks ago that teams across the league took “unified stances” during the anthem in a sweeping move that completely obfuscated the original purpose of the protests. Chief among the conspirators was Jerry Jones, who linked arms with his team in a display that was clearly intended to be a defense of the NFL and not a protest of police brutality or unfair treatment of minority groups in America.

The hot fudge on Jones’ hypocritical sundae was applied this week, when he insisted that players who do not stand for the anthem will not play for the Cowboys. Roger Goodell, never one to miss an opportunity to distinguish himself as a dirtbag, followed that declaration with a vaguely worded memo that amounts to a demand for players to stand for the anthem.

Already a local labor union has filed a suit against Jones and the Cowboys have held a team meeting to levy complaints about Jones’ comments. Whatever the outcome there, it’s nothing short of vile that a man who saw fit to employ violent domestic abuser Greg Hardy can’t abide someone kneeling in a respectful, non-violent protest of injustice.

It’s probably a long shot, but wouldn’t it be nice to see the Cowboys’ stars call their owner’s bluff? Something tells me that if Dak Prescott, Dez Bryant and the entire offensive line took a knee, they would still take the field.

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Up is down

The on-field NFL action is nearly as strange as the political sideshow. In an unexpected twist, the Oakland Raiders are in a tailspin and the San Francisco 49ers are a screaming success. Yes, I know the Niners are 0-5 and the Raiders are 2-3. Stay with me.

Oakland entered the season with high expectations, and through two weeks they were right on track — or so many thought, including an intrepid Examiner columnist who was trumpeting them as the class of their division. But in three-straight losses the struggles of their allegedly top-notch wide receivers have been deeply troubling, a back injury to their promising young quarterback is a reasonable source of great fear for the future and their already-thin defense has been decimated by injury, especially in the secondary.

Honestly, all of that would seem manageable — Cooper and Crabtree are good, they’re bound to get it going eventually; Carr is expected back this week; injuries happen — if the AFC West wasn’t so gosh darn good. The 5-0 Kansas City Chiefs look like the best team in football, the Broncos have a legitimate claim as one of the best three or four so far, and the Raiders are behind the eight-ball at 2-3.

Realistically, Oakland probably needs to go 8-3 the rest of the way to get into the postseason. They still have to play the Chiefs twice and the Broncos once more, plus tough road games at Buffalo and Philly and a big Sunday-nighter against the Cowboys. It’s not going to be easy.

Meanwhile, the 49ers are a moribund franchise without a win or, it seems, an NFL quarterback. But essentially the only good way to get an NFL quarterback is to draft him, and the Niners are well on track to give themselves a chance to do just that. On the road to a high draft position, they have so far been by far the most competitive of the terrible teams and appear to have a handful of exciting young players.

The fact that none of those players play QB or wide receiver should keep the win total very, very low, but a surprisingly tough defense and two worthwhile runners will likely give the young Niners a chance to play in a lot of close games. I’m not sure the Faithful could reasonably expect anything better from the 2017 team.

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Come back later

The NHL regular season is under way! The line I want to go with here is, “The first Sharks game I’ll watch is the one where they’re going for their second win,” but honestly I’ll probably wait until December regardless.

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Fun while it lasts

Major League Baseball is holding a postseason, despite the absence of Bay Area participation. While Giants and A’s fans are probably, understandably, frustrated and tired of America’s erstwhile pastime, there’s actually a lot to like here.

Beyond the obvious opportunity for schadenfreude with the Dodgers set for a tough NLCS, this season of baseball playoffs is noteworthy for how wide open it really is. Now that the Diamondbacks and Red Sox have been eliminated, it’s almost impossible to identify a true favorite for the World Series title.

In particular, the pitching depth of all the remaining teams gives everyone a chance. After watching two teams struggle to find starters for 162 regular-season games, a competitive, well-pitched playoffs might be just the thing to clean the palette of the Bay Area baseball fan.

Plus, the Dodgers are going to lose at some point, probably in hilariously calamitous fashion. You don’t want to miss that.

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Pro athletes, they’re just like us

The Warriors are less than a week from regular-season basketball, and they look good enough to challenge their own wins record. They’ve also become, I think unintentionally, a rallying point for the sports-and-politics conversation thanks to the president’s bizarre rescinding of a plainly irrelevant White House invitation.

As the team has been forced into some non-sports conversations, one oft-noted development is the personality of Klay Thompson, which seemed to blossom this summer on a media blitz through China. His apparently off-the-cuff comments about the Napa fires this week spawned a chorus of “look how grown-up Klay is!” takes.

I’m not here to debate Klay’s relative maturity — he’s still no great fan of media availability and certainly seems to prefer playing with Rocco to pontificating about politics or anything else. That’s his personality, and frankly it’s part of what makes him so lovable. But also, yes, he has clearly grown as a person in some ways.

Which brings me to my real point — of course he has grown as a person; of course his personal philosophies have changed. Klay Thompson is 28 years old. His world-view should still be developing. We should all hope to grow over time.

It has always struck me as ridiculous that fans and media alike want sports stars locked in a stasis like Simpsons characters. How can we expect 19-to-22-year-old athletes to come out of college or minor leagues or overseas as fully-formed humans with a concrete understanding of who they are and how they see the world?

It’s the same reason I’ve never seen any reason to doubt Colin Kaepernick’s sincerity, or question whether he actually experienced a socio-political awakening over the past few years. There’s nothing shocking or especially improbable about a human being in their mid-twenties going through experiences that shape their politics and philosophies.

What seems to be unfortunately difficult for many is remembering that athletes are, in fact, human beings.

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Stay Golden

Speaking of Warriors basketball, sort of, they finally filled their last open spot — Kerith Burke will be the new sideline reporter for all of the local broadcasts this year.

Having met Kerith and spoken with her on a handful of occasions, I can confidently say this is going to work out great. She knows the game, she’s smart and thoughtful, and she’s good on the air.

The Warriors stay winning.

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I believe that … oh, c’mon

In the category of NOT winning, the US Men’s National Soccer Team is sinking to new lows. With a 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago this week, they officially eliminated themselves from the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and completely erased any goodwill generated by a 4-0 beatdown of Panama last week.

It’s pathetic to lose to 99th-ranked Trinidad, and it’s embarrassing to have it happen in large part due to an own-goal from Omar Gonzalez, centerpiece of the team’s turnover-prone central defense.

What’s most disappointing, though, is the missed opportunity — in 19-year-old Christian Pulisic, who scored the lone goal in defeat and directly participated in 12 of the 17 US goals in this round of qualifying, we finally have an American soccer player who appears to have the stuff to become one of the best in the world.

It’s a national sports tragedy that his career will include one less World Cup appearance than it should, and a hit to US Soccer’s overall development that a generation of kids will have to wait four years to see Pulisic test his mettle on the world stage.

I’d say the US Soccer Federation should fire head coach Bruce Arenas, but I’m really not interested in watching Bob Bradley have another try.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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