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Saturday Sports: Expect More Politics In The New Year

Dec 30, 2017
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

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WERTHEIMER: It seems like our sports coverage this past year was as much about politics as it was about touchdowns or home runs. And heading into 2018, we're likely in for more of the same. We have NPR's Tom Goldman to give us a preview.

Good morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Happy new year - almost.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah. The NFL taking the knee protests were front page, headline news for weeks and months. Politicians and ordinary Americans had strong opinions about this and voiced them loudly. What are you expecting to see in the playoffs and in the Super Bowl?

GOLDMAN: Probably more. The protests have continued up through last weekend, and there's a good chance they'll keep going through the postseason, Linda - although some players stopped after they reached a tentative agreement with the NFL about a month ago, where the league will contribute about $90 million to social causes important to the players, an owners vote on that expected in March. Some of the more outspoken players this season are on the Philadelphia Eagles. And the Eagles will be a No. 1 seed as the playoffs start.

And if they make it to the Super Bowl, we may very well hear about the issues these players have been talking about, especially considering the big game's in Minnesota. That, of course, is where a policeman shot and killed Philando Castile last year, one of the prominent police shootings that prompted the NFL protests in the first place.

WERTHEIMER: Then, less than a week after the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics open in South Korea. We know of at least one prominent Olympian who is not shying away from politics, alpine ski champion Lindsey Vonn.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, she has said she'll be competing at the Olympics for the American people and not for the president. She's also said she won't visit the White House if she's invited. It's not clear what she'll say or do in South Korea. The Olympic rules strictly forbid political protests. But, you know, she's one of the most famous Olympians, and she'll certainly be asked a lot about it.

WERTHEIMER: The Olympics are always political, Tom. But this year...

GOLDMAN: Oh, really?

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: ...With the IOC picking the Russian team out of the Winter Games in South Korea, that's created an extra layer of controversy.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it sure has. I mean, the International Olympic Committee kicked out the Russian team because of Russia's widespread doping scandal, which Russian officials continued to deny. But supposedly, clean Russian athletes who passed the screening process going on right now will be in Pyeongchang. Technically, they'll be neutral competitors with no official Russian uniforms or anthem or flags. But in a compromise by the IOC because Russia is such a power player in the Olympics, Russian athletes will wear uniforms that say Olympic athlete from Russia. So we'll know who's who.

It will be an uncomfortable Russian presence at the games. And, you know, it's bound to create some tension. Will fans wave Russian flags? Will winning Russian athletes sing their national anthem while the Olympic anthem plays over the loudspeakers? So all of this is layered on top of the tension already on the Korean peninsula. It's going to be a very political games.

WERTHEIMER: And Russia's state-sponsored doping scandal will hang over the World Cup as well. The soccer tournament kicks off in June, hosted by Russia.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. And this week, a prominent Russian sports official, Vitaly Mutko, resigned as head of the World Cup organizing committee. He'd become a PR liability after he was banned from the Olympics because of the doping scandal. Russia is hoping, with him gone, it'll smooth this approach to the World Cup in the summer. But already, there've been allegations about doping by members of the Russian men's national soccer team, allegations about bribery in the awarding of the World Cup to Russia. And by June, who knows where the story will be about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election?

WERTHEIMER: Now, the U.S. soccer team will not be at the World Cup. The USA is not a soccer superpower. But there were some unexpected results from the qualifying matches.

GOLDMAN: Yeah - no USA, no Netherlands, no Italy - that's a big absence. Soccer fans in the U.S. still will be interested. There will be a lot of great action. But casual fans who'd normally be drawn to the tournament because the U.S. is playing - they won't be as interested. TV ratings in this country will take a hit. That's important because the promise of those ratings bring in big advertisers and sponsors. And hopefully, U.S. soccer will figure out what it takes to bolster the men's program in order to get the Yanks back in the next World Cup.

WERTHEIMER: That's NPR's Tom Goldman. Tom, thank you.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Linda.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "VANISHING POINT AND WHISTLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.