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Hockeyhell: The NHL's LGBT Wars, and What Happens When Pro Athletes Make Progressive Statements

Professional athletes are increasingly expressing their staunch political beliefs, from left to right. How do we distinguish when politics are simply commerce?

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Even if Reynolds never intended these tweets as anything more than a statement of personal belief (which, of course, is still problematic), the Uptown Sports brand, for the time being, is a socially conservative one; the players who have stuck with it are at best apolitical and at worst actively embracing the agency's accidental identity. To do so when so many other players had strong reactions against Uptown Sports suggests that this isn't just a fleeting concern. It's on the mind of the sport, and to sit idle is, in effect, taking a stand.

At first blush, this would not appear to be smart business. Agency brands may be less memorable, but athlete brands are obsessed over, and, certainly, players in every sport have at times taken drastic action to “protect the brand." An athlete’s brand can have a drastic effect on lucrative opportunities like endorsements and public appearances. And yet Uptown has not lost a single client. It’s entirely possible that Uptown, with less to lose and more flexibility than bigger agencies, has made a gamble on appealing to culturally conservative sports fans. If Avery, or an NBA player like Nash, can be perceived as left-friendly, why not court the other extreme?

The mechanics of this messaging are especially suspicious. Usually, it’s the job of agents to run interference when athletes shoot off their mouths. Here, the agent, rather than playing spin doctor, is saying the thing the athletes can’t. And yet, by sticking with Uptown, the pros reap the benefits.

At least in America, politics are polarizing. The right, religious or otherwise, and to a lesser degree, the left, make for important consumer blocks. Say a Nash or Avery is admired for his stance, aiding his brand. Shouldn’t there be other fans out there just clamoring for a player who, however subtly, stands with his values? To be even more cynical about it, maybe Todd Reynolds isn’t an incompetent jerk, or an irresponsible one, but a clever strategist. It may be a risky maneuver, but Reynolds serving as mouthpiece makes it less so.

It’s no worse for business than Avery’s PSA. If anything, there’s more of a cushion, more plausible deniability. Forget belief; the Uptown saga could have been nothing more than a publicity stunt in the name of commerce.

If this sounds paranoid, or dystopic, look no further than the Baltimore Orioles’ Luke Scott, who has been spouting pro-gun, anti-Obama, birther-esque--at times almost racist--rhetoric for any reporter who cares to listen. The Orioles eventually told Scott, whose act (or rank stupidity) garnered him an ESPN feature, to cut it out in the clubhouse. Note, though, that this order didn’t come from Scott’s agent or manager, or anyone else with a direct financial stake in his brand. The team doesn’t want fans turned off, and turned away from games, by Scott’s antics. Anywhere else means more publicity, and of a kind that establishes him firmly as the patron athlete of Tea Party aspirants everywhere.

We have a tendency to idealize politics in sports because they appear so rarely, and because explicit statements tend to come from the left. Conservative athletes, by and large, could get away with a few key statements that signaled the whole cluster of values that, by implication, held. What’s more, with Muhammad Ali serving as the model, it’s inconceivable that they could be intertwined with commerce. At this point, that couldn’t be further from the case. Only a true radical like Ali, who was willing to forfeit stardom for his beliefs, transcends branding and money-making.

The rise of the radical right, and increased polarization along the lines of issues like gay marriage, changes the calculus. Scott caters to a niche audience the same way that any other identity-driven celebrity does. Let’s not kid ourselves: On some level, it will be the same way with the first openly gay NBA or NHL player.