Recently, I was at my local pub aggressively discussing whatever topic arose from the bottom of a beer mug with the usual array of regulars. Not that this, in and of itself, is a good basis for a column. If every bar rail political argument were worthy of transcription to 750 words on paper, I’d have written a hundred books by now instead of 10.

Of course, on the other hand, if readers had consumed the same amount of Guinness and Jameson’s as my drunken debate team at the Ireland’s Four Courts in Arlington, Virginia, all my books may have been New York Times best sellers. But I digress.

For this particular robust discussion, however, the age of each mouthy bar patron definitely impacted their point of view. It was quite clear that the older drunks differed in opinion from the younger ones. Standing proud for all the older folks at the pub, I expressed my view, drawing a round of ire from the younger crowd.

Harry, a bartender from Ireland, laughed at my apparently vintage point of view, asking “For the love of Saint Peter, Rick, how old are you?”

I pondered the question for a moment. Glancing at the television, I noticed a Nike advertisement being broadcast featuring Colin Kaepernick. “Me?” I replied, nodding at the television. “I’m old enough to remember when watching football was about the game.”

A new barroom argument ensued regarding Kaepernick’s Nike-endorsed kneeling knees. On that one, I stayed quiet and reflected on my love/hate affair with the National Football League.

My dad took me to my first NFL game in 1974. Loyal fans, we always watched the away games because at the time, home games were blacked-out on local television. So, with whatever game was televised, we’d flip on the radio and listen to the Bengals’ over top that game. We didn’t go to see many events live. A trip to any sporting venue was an extraordinary event for us and I seem to remember each one with exquisite detail. Bengals versus Oilers on October 27, 1974 was no exception.

On that day in October, I saw the heroes of my youth—Ken Anderson, Tommy Casanova, Leapin’ Lemar Parrish, Isaac Curtis, Bob Trumpy—play on the AstroTurf of Riverfront Stadium. My dad took his movie camera to the game just to get 8mm film footage of Billy “White Shoes” Johnson returning punts (two returns for over 60 yards, by the way). Unfortunately, in a phrase that could be the title to a book on Bengals’ history, Cincinnati led in every category except one—the score.

One thing I distinctly remember from that day was the bus ride home. In the fall of 1974, we were in a true Constitutional crisis in America. Watergate had consumed the nation psyche. Richard Nixon had just resigned and, earlier that month, had been pardoned by President Gerald Ford. The Watergate trials had begun weeks earlier.

Yet, the bus ride from Dixie Terminal back to Ludlow was filled with talk of how five lost fumbles left the Bengals on the losing side of the scoreboard. My dad and I never knew what Paul Brown’s crew thought about Watergate and Nixon. He and his players never made their views known. And if they did, I’m not sure my pop or I would have much cared.

And that seems to define the major difference between then and now.

Athletes have always been larger than life. In rare instances, they’re bigger than their given sport. And when they do grow so huge, they usually do it without establishing a social voice. For a few rare humans like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, their legendary sports careers and political activism become inseparably intertwined. Often despised for their views at the time, when the right combination of talent and social conscience come together, history usually remembers them kindly.

The unusual thing happening today is, unlike Robinson and Ali, there is no on-field prowess setting Colin Kaepernick apart from his peers. Ali could be outspoken because no glove could touch him. Robinson was so fast, he could steal home in the blink of an eye. Nike is elevating a good (not great) football quarterback with a career rating less than Andy Dalton’s. Thus far, it’s been very successful at selling shoes. And whether a corporate endorsement of Kaepernick’s knees (as opposed to his arm) will eventually make him larger than football remains to be seen.

If it comes to pass, the corporate impact on sports will be forever taken to a new level that even a mug of Guinness with a sidecar of Jameson’s can solve.

Rick Robinson’s latest novel, The Promise of Cedar Key, can be purchased on Amazon and at Joseph Beth Bookstore in Crestview Hills.

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