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Is Sports A Safe Conversation Topic At Thanksgiving Anymore?

NOEL KING, HOST:

And if your family is a family that fights about politics - and, really, in 2017, what family isn't? - Thanksgiving can be tough. And now, one of the few ways we have to escape politics - sports - has become political. There is, of course, this controversy in the NFL over players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. So what do we do about all this? Sports commentator Pablo Torre is here to try and help. He's in our New York studios. Hey, Pablo.

PABLO TORRE: Hey, Noel.

KING: Do you have any tips on how to talk about football this Thanksgiving without it getting political?

TORRE: So football this Thanksgiving reminds me of that game that kids play called Operation - if you're familiar with it...

KING: (Laughter) Sure am.

TORRE: ...Where you can pull out the misbehaving body part, and in this case, that would be the actual sports at the center of sports. But the proximity to the danger of politics is shorter and more dangerous really than ever before if you're trying to keep a happy household. So, for instance, if you're looking at this Chargers-Cowboys game, you can talk about Jerry Jones, the owner of the Cowboys, feuding with Roger Goodell and the NFL.

This is something we haven't really seen before, but if you dig any deeper into why Jerry Jones is feuding with the NFL and why his Cowboys are struggling, you get into stuff like not just a domestic violence investigation into their star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, but also Jerry Jones enlisting allegedly Papa John's to basically put their thumb on the scale and say, you know, these protests that we're seeing really aren't something that's good for our business. So you can get to the football. Just realize you're about a centimeter away from opening up a can of worms that is truly and explicitly political.

KING: I'm going to go ahead and say millimeter, but OK. You think we've hit a point in 2017 where we can talk about any sports without them getting into politics.

TORRE: I mean, if you're going to Thanksgiving and you want to talk about the NBA, for instance, there are some great stories. The Boston Celtics have won a lot of games in a row. The Philadelphia 76ers have gone from the laughingstock of the league to potentially a contender - at least in the Eastern Conference. However, if you're looking to talk about what we're all talking about in reality, you're talking about the fact that Donald Trump is feuding with LaVar Ball, the father of Lonzo Ball, the Lakers' star rookie. You're talking about, yes, how LeBron James just came out in support of Colin Kaepernick and called the president, of course, a bum on Twitter. So you can do it. It's just that the literal biggest names in the sport are the ones who are refusing to stay in their own silo.

KING: You know, my brother is a huge football fan, and I called him earlier this week, and I said, listen, on Thanksgiving, would you rather watch football or would you rather talk politics? And he said, oh, no, I would rather talk politics.

TORRE: I don't think those are going to be two different options, ultimately. I mean, think about just putting on the game and then seeing the national anthem being shown on screen. Like, that was once admittedly naively seen as an apolitical moment. And I would say if you're looking to have a conversation at the Thanksgiving table and replicate some of the fun of old sports conversations, you're probably going to retreat into that warm hearth that is debating whether steroid users can get into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Like, that's one of those controversies that's evergreen but also somehow full of rancor without being actually sensitive to people's worldviews.

KING: Evergreen - I like that. Pablo Torre is a senior writer for ESPN. Thanks so much, Pablo.

TORRE: Thank you, Noel.

KING: Happy Thanksgiving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.