- Associated Press - Friday, September 15, 2017

Colin Kaepernick still can’t find a job in the NFL, though he continues to make a difference while paying a huge price for his politics.

Then there’s all the other chatter we hear from the sports world, much of it doing little to no good when it comes to advancing the conversation in these divisive times.

The latest brouhaha erupted this week, pitting ESPN host Jemele Hill against President Trump.

To briefly recap, Hill tweeted that the president is “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself (with) other white supremacists.” The White House spokeswoman called that comment “a fireable offense.”

ESPN distanced itself from Hill’s opinion but took no other real action as far as we know. The host apologized for putting her employer in “an unfair light,” though not for what she said. Trump weighed in Friday - yep, in one of his early morning rants on Twitter - by claiming ESPN dwindling subscriber numbers are due to “its politics” (they’re not, by the way) and demanding that someone “apologize for untruth!”

And where are we since all this began?

Not a bit closer to dealing with perplexing problems that are tearing us apart.

Before we go any further, this isn’t one of those pleas to make sports our escape hatch from reality. Even though it can certainly provide a few hours of respite from the nastiness of politics, or even help soothe our wounds in times of national tragedy as we’ve seen in the wake of two devastating hurricanes, it’s always been more than that.

From Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, our heroes of the field and ring and track have helped us advance as a nation with their thoughtful, heroic lines in the sand.

Unfortunately, too many folks today are simply spouting off because they have a convenient forum, be it social media or talk radio or some other newfangled form of communication, without giving much thought to the ramifications of their words. They’ve unleashed the sort of low-brow discourse that used to be restricted to the local sports bar, everyone screaming as loud as they can, flailing around for that perfect insult or zinger, all in the quest for instant gratification.

Take former pitcher-turned-broadcaster Curt Schilling, who was dumped by ESPN for posting an anti-transgender meme on his Facebook page and just this week told conservative conduit Sean Hannity that “the left has always been the party of racism and intolerance.”

Boom!

Or how about NBA stars Stephen Curry and LeBron James. The former responded to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank calling Trump “a real asset” by saying in an interview, “I agree with that description if you remove the ‘et’ from ‘asset.’” The latter, while lamenting that deadly rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville in an otherwise heartfelt speech at a charity event, called Trump “the so-called president.”

Pow!

All made headlines.

None swayed deeply ingrained beliefs on both sides or advanced any sort of national detente between right and left.

Granted, Kaepernick became a highly divisive figure by choosing to kneel for the national anthem last season, his personal protest against police brutality and racial inequities in the justice system. For sure, he’s had some missteps along the way, from wearing socks depicting police officers as pigs to failing to vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Whether you agree or disagree, though, it’s impossible to deny that Kaepernick is making a difference.

If anyone doubted the sincerity of his convictions, he backed them up by pledging $1 million to various charities committed to social change. He’s already doled out $900,000, most recently with a total of $100,000 to four worthy organizations that help inner-city youth, immigrant youths, the homeless, and incarcerated children. Also last week, he distributed backpacks at the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York for kids returning to school.

For that, the blackballed quarterback picked up an award Friday. The players’ union chose him as the Week 1 Community MVP.

No argument there, even though no team has deemed him worthy of a roster spot.

To some degree, Kaepernick is following in the courageous footsteps of Robinson, who stoically endured racial slurs and death threats to integrate baseball, and Ali, who lost three years in the prime of his boxing career for objecting to the Vietnam War. It may take decades - as it did with Robinson and Ali - to truly appreciate the significance of Kaepernick’s actions.

But we’ll get there.

This is what we should desire from our sports heroes: bold, thoughtful statements that should help us deal constructively with our problems. Never should we want them to follow the example set by do-nothing stars such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, who kept an eye on their personal bottom lines in everything they did, always showing more concern for moving merchandise than taking on potentially image-scarring debates.

It’s up to us to determine those who are really thinking things through, who are truly striving to further the conversation.

And those who are just running their mouths.

___

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

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