In a world where absolutely everything carries its own degree of political connotations, it makes sense that there may be some level of desire to keep some things politics-free. But this desire doesn’t give us license to pretend politics don’t affect certain areas simply because we would feel more comfortable if that were the case. Perhaps it is an effort of escape, or maybe it’s made up of things like fear, naivety, or oblivion. Whatever the case, somehow the sports environment has been brought under scrutiny for its growing population of politically aware and involved athletes, alongside sport journalists and commentators. How dare they? People say; as though the world of sport is somehow divided from the reality in which we all cautiously exist. But the sports environment is a reflection of the world we live our day-to-day lives in, with all its inequalities, oppressions, and anxieties, and to diminish the sports world as though it is a kind of utopia to soothe the mind of the spectator, is to diminish those who make up its backbone.
‘Politics and sport make uneasy bedfellows’: the phrase is sufficiently ubiquitous to be a cliché. It is also the worst form of moral abjuration, designed to relieve the social responsibilities of players, owners, sponsors, administrators and fans, leaving us free to enjoy sport unfettered by any tedious ethical dimensions.
Despite the belief that the role of sport exists solely for entertainment purposes, it is becoming more and more evident that the political aspects of sport are becoming increasingly visible. But of course, this is not without all too frequent backlash. Today’s athletes, have a much harder time attempting to navigate between the apolitical box society has placed them in, and reality that exists around them, than they did years ago. Gill argues that, “The stakes associated with athletes’ civic involvement have far more zeros attached than in years past” (2016, 401) meaning that athlete activism comes at a high cost, one that could be the loss of a career. He continues that, “Not only are athletes hesitant to engage in activism, but sports franchises have adopted a corporate mentality and do not want to get drawn into politicized issues. Sports franchises want to appeal to as many people as possible…” (2016, 401). Thus, there is an attempt to separate sport from the reality that exists around it in order to not threaten the flow of money sport generates. The fact that there is more concern surrounding the financial aspects of sport, than the injustices that litter countries across the globe highlights a significant problem throughout our society.
The Essence of the Spectacle
Attempting to shield sport from the realm of politics furthers the idea of the spectacle as addressed by Michael Friedman and David Andrews. We essentially create this visage of something that exists purely for entertainment purposes that sheds light on a utopian sport mythology. Beneath the visage, exists the reality of the closely intertwined relationship between sport and politics, but this is a pill that most find hard to swallow as their love of the game becomes littered with reality. Friedman and Andrews write, “According to Debord, the spectacle is an illusion that ‘serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system.’ In this way, spectacle supports and helps to reproduce an inequitable status quo, since it encourages passive reception of images rather than active social and political engagement” (2010, 186). It seems, that the very idea of sports being inherently political, threatens the security we have found within watching something strictly for enjoyment. If watching a basketball game from the comfort of your couch provides some sense of escape from reality for you, then perhaps witnessing Derrick Rose in an I can’t breathe t-shirt causes some discomfort. But the reality is that, “perhaps no industry better reflects the complex and disjointed nature of American race relations than the business of sports, and the subsequent intersection of race, power, employment, and workplace displays of resistance.” It’s about time this reality is recognized.
Old Activism, New Problems
The relationship between political activism and sport is not something new, but it seems its presence has become even less acceptable today. Hartmann’s article recognizes the importance of Harry Edwards, an inspirational figure for athlete activism prior to the 1968 Summer Olympics. He writes, “Edwards was a race scholar when he began teaching at SJS, not a sport specialist. Nevertheless, in teaching Smith and his teammates about the realities of prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. Edwards raised the questions of racial inequality, human rights, and social justice that would be the rallying cries and moral foundations for athletic activism” (Hartmann, 2013, 183). Essentially, during those Summer Olympics, “gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, two American black runners, raised their black-gloved fists in the air during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” However, despite the foundation that Edwards laid, Cunningham and Regan argue that, “Despite his legacy, athlete activism by African Americans is less common today” (2013, 658).
But this sort of political activism was largely absent among professional athletes in the decades that followed. As President Obama said in 2014, among well-paid athletes there was the notion of “just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves.” Indeed, Michael Jordan, when asked during his playing days why he wasn’t more political, is reported to have (apocryphally) quipped: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Cunningham and Regan suggest potential reasons for this absence such as, “…it is possible that athletes today perceive that their primary duty is to engage in athletic excellence, not be an advocate for social change,” alongside perhaps, “…contemporary athletes believe they have too much to lose by speaking out against social ills” (2012, 658). The essence of this primary role as an athlete is dangerous in that it acts as a public force to keep sport within the confines of its own spectacle, and thus further away from connecting to and commenting on the harsh reality of inequality and injustice that exists regularly around the world.
Old Problems, New Media
However, with the advent of new media, the ability for athletes and others involved in the world of sport to become politically involved is significant. Technology is allowing for an even greater coming together in the relationship between sport and politics in an online environment that is gaining impactful reach regardless of its discontents.
…Social media has changed the nature of social protest. It’s helped bring down political regimes, it’s empowered revolts, and it’s given a voice to the underrepresented. Political movements can begin with one simple tweet sent from one unaffiliated individual on the spur of the moment that can then roil into a revolution.
Thus, the real question is, as sport and politics continue to merge together in this newly large-scale and recognizable way on and off field, how will this relationship in turn impact society and potentially a new understanding of sport in itself? Most noticeably, social media affects the speed in which we gain awareness of what is going on. Whether you agree with protests such as Colin Kaepernick’s, you’re still bound to hear about it through social media whether it’s passed on in a positive or negative light. McGillivray states, “In the context of sport culture, the proliferation of digital and social media activity has enabled fans, athletes and teams to communicate together instantaneously (2016, 2). Essentially, athlete activism may still be undergoing the same, or worse, amount of scrutiny that it used to, but regardless, one athletes protest will overwhelm social media only moments later, and thus the protest is spread despite what context it is delivered in.
Chess player, Nazi Paikidze-Barnes refusal to play in the Women’s World Chess Championship, “in protest of the Islamic Republic’s compulsory dress code, which mandates that all women wear hijabs, or headscarves, in public,” is a perfect example of the way in which social media furthers the efforts of athlete activism. Her refusal, which was posted on social media, spread across the globe and in turn gained a substantial amount of followers committed to furthering her protest.
Today, names like Colin Kaepernick remain the hot-topic of athlete activism and protests and new media has become an excellent vehicle for accelerating the speed at which these stories reach the eyes of viewers across the world. Yet unfortunately, these acts of political involvement are largely met with anger and discomfort. Kaufman and Wolff argue that, “…when the personal becomes political in sports, the cheerleading often comes to an abrupt half. If athletes use their status and recognition to promote social and political causes, they often find themselves criticized and pushed to the sidelines” (2010, 156). Kaepernick’s protest, the decision to sit during the national anthem was a protest that was doomed from the beginning based on his position as an athlete and our unwillingness to look beyond what he is paid to do. On the subject of athlete activism, one student athlete states, “We know that we will be punished… Everything about athletic culture says that you cannot be anything more than an athlete… From NFL football players to a [Division III] athlete like me… we’re not supposed to be anything but athletes” (Arnett, 2015, 19). So I suppose the real question here, is at what point will we be willing to let athletes be more than just athletes? This student continues in saying, “Coaches, administrators, governing bodies in athletics [like the NCAA] are not interested in who we are; they’re just interested in what we can do… There’s a culture of ‘Leave everything at the door, the only thing that matters is sports’” (2015, 19). However, slowly but surely athletes are stepping out despite the backlash in an effort to make known that sport is not the only thing that matters on and off the field.
More Than Athletes
It’s important to note that athletes are not the only actors in attempting to break the anti-politics attitude in sport, nor should they be. As a sports journalist, Dave Zirin recognizes his own role in this complicated relationship. In an interview he states, “Athletes that are political defy the box. Many of them, in my experience, would say more if they felt that there was a media that would take them seriously. We need more writers and academics that do” (King, 2008, 337). Ultimately, this shifts the pressure on athletes to a pressure on the rest of us – one that says if we are ever going to see athletes feel free to express their political perspectives, we first need to be prepared to hear them, and perhaps we are not yet. Sean Newell writes, “For a country that prides itself on the righteousness of its institutions and the foundations of its freedoms, we sure have a hard time handling it when a movement criticizes the police, or a quarterback sits on the bench while someone sings a song.”
Ultimately, the relationship between sport and politics is complicated, in the same way that the reality sport reflects on is one of severe complications surrounding inequalities and injustice. It’s time we stop pretending that sport and politics are two separate entities, and start recognizing the importance of athletes and broadcasters taking a stance for the things that exist in our realities, whether or not in generates controversy.
Arnett, A. (2015). Athletes and activism. Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, 31(25), 18-19.
Cunningham, G., & Regan, M. (2012). Political activism, racial identity and the commercial endorsement of athletes. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 47(6).
Friedman, M.T. & Andrews, D.L. (2010). The built sport spectacle and the opacity of democracy. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 46(2), 181-204.
Gill, E.L. (2016). “Hands up, don’t shoot” or shut up and play ball? Fan-generated media views of the Ferguson five. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 26(3-4).
Hartmann, D. (2013). Activism, organizing, and the symbolic power of sport. Journal For the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, 3(2), 181-194.
Kaufman, P., Wolff, E.A. (2010). Playing and protesting: sport as a vehicle for social change. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 34(2), 154-175.
King, C. R. (2008). Toward a radical sport journalism: An interview with Dave Zirin. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 32(4), 333-344.
McGillivray, D. (2016). Platform politics: sport events and the affordances of digital and social media. Sport in Society.