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Commentary: Whether or not fans approve, athlete activism is a staple of the sports world

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 28:  Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers in action against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on December 28, 2014 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 28: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers in action against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on December 28, 2014 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

On the heels of a surprising, divisive and polarizing move by Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem and today’s confirmation that he will continue to do so, it’s important to realize that controversial political statements – and athletes’ opinions on social issues – are becoming more common. And whether you like it or not, they’re here to stay.

To me, it’s an incredibly interesting dynamic: Sports – primarily considered by many a form of entertainment and a perceived outlet to “get away” from the problems of everyday life – strongly clashing with the political stands and various causes the athletes often choose to promote. This, in and of itself, automatically polarizes a fanbase, immediately frustrating the subset of fans that want the athletes to “just shut up and play.”

That would be do-able if those on the playing field were robots – but they’re not. And as living, breathing human beings, many athletes are opting to make their voices – and opinions – heard.

Now, don’t get me wrong: While I understand Kaepernick’s message and his fight against oppression for minority groups, I strongly disagree with his specific act of protest. Even though he assured everyone today that he has great respect for our nation’s military, I tend to side with Giants receiver Victor Cruz, who said this today:

“The flag is the flag. Regardless of how you feel about America today and the things that are going on across the world with gun violence and things of that nature, you’ve got to respect the flag. You’ve got to stand up there with your teammates. It’s bigger than just you, in my opinion. I think you go up there, you’re with your team. And you go and pledge your allegiance to the flag and you sing the national anthem with your team – and then you go about your business, whatever your beliefs are. But Colin is his own man, he decided to sit down and sit out and that’s his prerogative – but from a personal standpoint, I think you have to stand up there with your team and understand this game and what’s going around this country is bigger than just you.”

Again, whether you agree with Kaepernick or Cruz (or however you feel), fans need to understand that stories like this will continue to force their way into that artificial “sports bubble” they’ve created as an escape to their everyday lives.

I think it’s a shame that we all celebrate Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett when he’s giving back to his community or when he speaks out against childhood obesity – but when he speaks about social responsibility, some comments online call for him to just “stick to football.” It’s a shame that when Richard Sherman donates time and energy to inspire youth it’s an amazing gesture, but when he discusses Black Lives Matter, all of a sudden according to some he “shouldn’t quit his day job.”

Bennett and Sherman are intelligent athletes who have clearly done their research, are promoting dialogue within the locker room and strongly consider their status as role models off the field. And while not everyone falls under that category, to immediately throw shade – accusing them of overstepping their boundaries as a professional athlete – is flat-out wrong.

Again, you don’t have to agree with the cause or the specific argument the athlete is trying to promote. In Kaepernick’s case or any other, fans have every right to disagree or even lose complete respect for that player too.

All I’m asking for is the acceptance that sports are not played in some Utopian vacuum – that athletes do have the right to express their beliefs, and sometimes they won’t be in line with yours.

Because I can assure you this: simply ignoring them won’t make stories like Kaepernick’s go away.