By Tim Baffoe–

(CBS) We’re amid a renaissance of sorts when it comes to the intersection of sports and overt political action. This is a good development, unless you’re someone terrified of losing your clutches on the status quo. In which case, this is still a very good development.

Colin Kaepernick and Gregg Popovich, two of the figures noted in a New York magazine piece this week on the very American-ness of using sports as political platform, will most definitely be looked upon decades from now as important figures in the American landscape — positive ones, a la Muhammad Ali, who were vilified in their day by the static section of society. To hate civil disobedience, to be uncomfortable with social justice, to get defensive when sports threatens comfortability with progress is to espouse anti-intellectualism.

And while the angry “stick to sports” voices are quite loud whenever sports figures dare stick up for the marginalized, they’re typical and expected. Less expected, though — and I don’t know if this is a natural unconscious reaction to a progressive era like this one in sports or mere coincidence — is a different culture of anti-intellectualism that’s poking its head out here and there of late.

It isn’t just the anti-advanced stats people like Mike Matheny and LeSean McCoy fighting valid statistical curiosity with “you never played the game” steakheadedness. But that sort of flat-earth thinking has been demanding fair air ever since really smart people dared to mess comfortably dumb ways of considering everything. In the last week, that’s been literal.

Ahead of All-Star weekend, Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving let fly on his teammates’ podcast that he questions the unwoke validity of the earth’s roundness.

“For what I’ve known for as many years and what I’ve been taught is that the Earth is round,” Irving said. “But I mean, if you really think about it from a landscape of the way we travel, the way we move and the fact that can you really think of us rotating around the sun and all planets aligned, rotating in specific dates being perpendicular with what’s going on with these planets and stuff like this … It doesn’t come back. There is no concrete information except for the information that they’re giving us.”

This caused an understandable stir because an NBA player joining the ranks of legit crazy people who subscribe to a flat earth theory is very WTF-able. Irving attempted to clarify his words later, but that toothpaste was way out of the tube already.

Calling for critical thinking is good. Suggesting that we question authority is important. Applying either to the spherical quality of the damn globe is counterproductive.

Because when a poison pill of thought like that gets tossed in the water, it infects some people with illogical skepticism over totally concrete conclusions. This becomes the anti-vaxxer movement that Jay Cutler subscribes to because he and his wife heard pseudoscience from other people who heard it from other people and then let their fear of not understanding advanced biology get the best of them. Expert consensus is then never enough, because experts don’t stroke our fears. Then herd immunity gets compromised because some soft-headed parents got conned.

Flat earth conspiracy theorists aren’t quite as dangerous in the immediate, but who knows how far such an anti-intellectual ripple effect can go? Irving’s “wait, hold on” got  Warriors forward Draymond Green to question sanity and go truther himself. This is how the dumb spreads.

Worse, Green’s response to questions about Irving’s smoke-filled college dorm philosophy session included: “It’s just his opinion. It’s hard to call someone’s opinions crazy.”

Nah, it’s pretty easy. Especially if you’re concerned with the spread of alternative facts in 2017. Everyone has a right to an opinion, but an opinion based in fear, bigotry or just no real evidence forfeits respect. What’s so wrong about allowing someone’s bad opinions to go unchallenged is the increased likelihood of converts to the anti-intellectual.

Writes Ijeoma Olou for The Establishment, not referring to Irving but rather the “sport” of online debate:

There is no debate right now that will convince a flat-earther that the earth is round. If you think the earth is flat in 2017, it is because you are determined to think the earth is flat in 2017, not because you haven’t seen enough evidence. You are choosing to climb up on a cross of archaic bull****, and I certainly have no intention of climbing up with you.

The era of “gotta hear both sides” isn’t a bright one. There isn’t intellectual room for allowing Alex Jones-style fluoride conspiracy theorists on the Tampa Bay Rays into the intelligent conversation. Devoting part of an episode of the most recent Hard Knocks to a player’s beliefs in mermaids but refusal to believe in dinosaurs may be humorous, but there was someone watching that with their child and saying, “Come to think of it…”

The cousin of thinking in absurd ways about pretty standard stuff is getting hot and bothered about changes to antiquated sports stuff. Usually this involves baseball and the game angering people who will die soon in favor of trying to reclaim younger viewers who have abandoned a game whose religious dedication to lore and conservative preservation has become somehow unappealing to kids.

This week, MLB decided to ditch the four-pitch intentional walk in favor of making them automatic should a manager signal for one. A new rule like this isn’t critical but rids the game of fairly useless procedure. Oh, but the super rare wild pitches and rarer batter lunging to make contact with a ball five feet away. Welp, baseball as we know it is ruined without such idiosyncrasies.

While, as Dayn Perry of CBS Sports notes, there were 0.38 intentional walks per game last season, this teeny trimming of baseball’s fat is still progress — even if that progress is simply recognizing that this isn’t necessary to the game. And getting twisted over losing the 1 percent of catastrophic intentional walk attempts seems an odd hill to die on. 

The NFL — which for the most part is as progressive as William F. Buckley’s long underwear — has made rules changes over the years to preserve actual bodies. (It’s approach to science, on the other hand…) Gone are the VHS-worthy compilations of hits that would get people jail time outside a stadium, but that’s evolution, which is progressive. Baseball fans have long fought evolution, and just like actual creationism, such denial of the possibility of institutional fallibility will prove a cult of fools.

So a greater recognition of the intersectionality of sports and the political is a fine thing and a natural step in intelligent progress. It doesn’t absolve those participants from allowing little bits of an intellectual sports Dark Ages to fight their way through a renaissance, though. 

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.