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Barbershop: When Sports Meet Politics


Now it's time for a trip to the Barbershop. That's where we gather a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on our minds. So joining us for a shape-up today are Kevin Blackistone. He's a sports columnist at The Washington Post and a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. He's here with me at our studios in Washington D.C. Professor Blackistone, welcome back.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Lenny McAllister is a conservative political commentator. He's been a recent congressional candidate. He writes for many outlets including The Root. He's at member station WESA in Pittsburgh. Lenny, welcome back to you as well.

LENNY MCALLISTER: Hey, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm great. And Pablo Torre is a senior writer at ESPN joining us from our New York bureau. Pablo, welcome back to you as well.

PABLO TORRE: It is good to be back, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you. So Beyonce's having twins. Oh, wait. I hear there's a big...


MARTIN: ...I hear there's a big sporting event tomorrow. I'm just kidding. So the Super Bowl is tomorrow in Houston.

TORRE: All right. Yes.

MARTIN: Yes that - the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons. But the political news is kind of right in there with the football and even those Super Bowl ads that we talk about so much are intertwined with this. And let me play one that's getting a lot of attention. It's a Budweiser ad, and it traces kind of the immigration story of one of the company's founders, Adolphus. Busch. Let's hear a quick clip.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Welcome to America.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You're not wanted here. Go back home.

MARTIN: It just shows this arduous journey getting here from Germany. And I just - and you can see why given all the news that this one kind of stands out to a lot of people and is getting a lot of mention. So Kevin, I want to start with you because there's also kind of a counter move to this. There's even a hashtag telling people, like yourself...


MARTIN: ...To stick with the sports. Just...

BLACKISTONE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And I now have to ask you how you react to that.

BLACKISTONE: I laugh at that because if you've been a black sports columnist or you've been a woman sports columnist and are, you've been hearing that for years. So it's kind of funny now that my white columnist colleagues are getting the same thing because they dare to venture where sports is not supposed to walk. So, you know, this is not going to be the first politicized sporting event, not even the first politicized Super Bowl. But certainly because of our - the temperature of our political climate, it's going to be one that will probably be more heated and discussed more than anything.

MARTIN: And why is that?

BLACKISTONE: Well, I think just because, obviously, Donald Trump and his administration have really impacted things like never before. And going into the Super Bowl, you know, one of the conversations we've had since December of 2015 was about Tom Brady who will quarterback the New England Patriots in this, who was asked about a red cap that was in his cubby hole up in New England which said make America great again. And people asked him about his relationship with Donald Trump and the fact that he had the campaign slogan there in his room and whether or not he supported Donald Trump in many of the things that Donald Trump stood for. And that has been talked about this week.

MARTIN: So is the argument that if you support the Patriots, then you support Donald Trump? Is that supposed to be...

BLACKISTONE: I think some people have made that leap, but I don't think that's fair or true. But I think the question is for Tom Brady since you are a face of the NFL and certainly the face of the Patriots how you stand or how you square with Donald Trump on the outrageous things that a lot of people say that he has said and done.

MARTIN: OK. Pablo, what about you? Is it stick with sports?

TORRE: Look, Michel, we just spent a time not too long ago celebrating the life and death of Muhammad Ali. And one of the fascinating roles that Muhammad Ali should be playing for us, but never really ends up playing for us is that of the patron saint of not sticking to sports - sports and culture, sports and politics. There's never been a bright line dividing those two, and it's not just Ali. You look at, for instance, the people even in Trump's administration - Woody Johnson, the owner of the Jets was just nominated - named to be an ambassador to the United Kingdom.

We have Betsy DeVos, a part owner of the Orlando Magic who is certainly being nominated for the secretary of education. And I would also like to point out even beyond the Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, that triumvirate of people who Trump claims as friends and has used as campaign tools - there's also just this idea that - you played that clip from that Budweiser ad - like in a vacuum - in a vacuum that's not 2017, I should say - that's not partisan.

That's not a partisan concept to stand up for immigrants. So what's happening here, too, is not just that bright line being just eradicated by the Donald Trumpiness (ph) of it. It's the idea that, oh, right, there are issues affecting people of color, immigrants many of whom, by the way, populate sports, including this very Super Bowl. And people are probably going to end up speaking on that as well.

MARTIN: So are your fans asking you to stay out of talking about these things? I mean, Kevin, obviously, your identity is so clear on this that you've talked about these issues for so long. I kind of have a hard time imagining people saying don't talk about it anymore. But, Pablo, what about you? I mean...

TORRE: I'm trying to desensitize them in the way that KB has done to his readership. I'm trying to get people to realize - and yes. To answer your question - yes, many people - they want the escapism. And, by the way, I do, too, at this point. I would love to be able to seek refuge in a place that is free from the pressures and the reality of a normal life today. But, look, reality is a wave, and sports is a part of culture that sits underneath that wave. And that's what we're seeing as always.

MARTIN: Lenny, what about you? And you've run for Congress three times, and, you know...

MCALLISTER: Twice. Twice.

MARTIN: Twice. OK, sorry. But you're here with us, so we know how that turned out. Sorry.


MARTIN: (Laughter) But - so is kind of football your safe haven? Do you not want people to talk politics around football or sport? Where are you on this?

MCALLISTER: Well, number one, you have to realize that I'm sitting in Pittsburgh, Pa., as a native Pittsburgher, so it was a refuge until two weeks ago in Foxboro, Mass. Now with that said, you know, I don't understand why people think that folks stop being American just because they play a sport or folks stop being Americans just because they play an instrument. You know, I think that's very insulting, and you can't say that you're for the Constitution and you're for the First Amendment.

And I look at fellow conservatives a lot of times, and I look at the hypocrisy of this. And I say you are for the Constitution, but you want somebody that can dunk a basketball to just be an entertainer that dunks a basketball. And then when people see how that could be racist or how it could be sexist to say it to a woman or how it could be, you know, just insulting overall when it comes to entertainment, they don't understand the duplicity in the statement.

I have no problems with these types of things. In fact, I encourage it. I think that we're going to heal past the animus that we have seen over the last several years by debating and trusting each other as Americans across things such as sports and entertainment.

MARTIN: During the game, too?

MCALLISTER: Unfortunately...

MARTIN: During the game, too?

MCALLISTER: Even during - I mean, why? We are still Americans, and so the - see the ad - with the Bush ad or even the things, you know - a couple years ago there was a controversy with Tim Tebow and his mom. And people flipped out about that. We should be able to still have our values and have those discussions because we're having it at the water cooler or on social media.

But now we're not having discussions. We're having arguments constantly. And if we don't regain the skill to talk to each other in love and in respect, this is going to continue to spiral.

MARTIN: And especially over wings.


MARTIN: I mean, if you can't have a loving conversation over wings, I don't even understand, you know, who you are.

MCALLISTER: Yes. I agree.

MARTIN: OK. So here's another side of the story. You remember for people who maybe don't follow the game, but for the people who do, clearly people know this - that the Patriots are back after Deflategate. I mean, the league claims that the Patriots used underinflated footballs to give quarterback Tom Brady an advantage.

This all started in 2015. Then after a lot of toing and froing, Tom Brady accepted the league's punishment, a four-game suspension, and despite all that, back at the Super Bowl again. So, Kevin, is it - you've got to give it - is it time to give the man his props?

BLACKISTONE: Well, of course. But the only really - the only way to really see him get his props and to enjoy it would be for the Patriots to win and for Roger Goodell to have to shake his hand and hand him the trophy - and maybe the MVP trophy. I mean, that's the comic cynic in me that wants to see that happen.

And remember, it's not only Deflategate, but there was also Spygate back in 2007 which really begin to discolor the white hat that the Patriots had worn since 9/11 into the NFL and really painted them as this kind of Darth Vader, diabolical team that you can't trust and is always up to something underhanded in order to get ahead. So this is going to be - this could be a real comedy at the end.

MARTIN: So who do we think is taking the game tomorrow? Yes, I am asking you to speculate. I want to hear from everybody really briefly. And who do you - what do you think Beyonce and Jay-Z should name their twins?


MARTIN: Getting back to what really matters here.


MARTIN: So who takes it? Kevin, quick.

BLACKISTONE: I'll the - Patriots 27-24.

MARTIN: OK. Pablo.

TORRE: Patriots 31, Falcons 28. And Pablo and, you know, Michel, I guess, would be good names.

MARTIN: You know, you're right.


MARTIN: You are so right about that. OK and Billy - I'm sorry. Billy - I was going to say that's my husband's name. It's like Michel and Billy.

MCALLISTER: Billy's also a good name.

MARTIN: That was my - that's a good name, too. Lenny. OK (laughter).

MCALLISTER: I will second Pablo with the Pablo and Michel...

TORRE: Thank you.

MCALLISTER: And I - unfortunately, I think that the Patriots are going to win by six points.

MARTIN: OK. And the names? Lenny.

MCALLISTER: I'm going to second...

MARTIN: What do - Beyonce and Jay-Z should name their kids?

MCALLISTER: I'm going to second Pablo's choices.

TORRE: This is a hashtag, Michel.

MCALLISTER: Pablo and Michel work.

TORRE: Lenny's...

MCALLISTER: Absolutely.

TORRE: ...Going to help us trend this.


MARTIN: OK. What is it? I didn't hear. I couldn't hear.

MCALLISTER: Pablo and Michel.

TORRE: Pablo and Michel. We're going to make this work.

MARTIN: Pablo and Michel. You know, you're right. And - well, OK. Wait. That was Kevin Blackistone, sports columnist for The Washington Post, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, Lenny McAllister, conservative commentator with us from member station WESA in Pittsburgh and Pablo Torre, senior writer at ESPN with us from our bureau in New York and namesake of Beyonce's twins. Thank you all so much for joining us.


TORRE: Thank you.

MCALLISTER: God bless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.