This past week in the sports world has been like no other. While there has been a strong marriage between sports and politics since modern sports took off in post-Civil War America, the social media and news-entertainment world exploded with President Trump’s focus on professional sports figures, in both his tweets and a speech given in Alabama where he not only passed judgment on NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, but also on manliness of the very game of football itself as he questioned the emphasis on player safety, postulating that they’re making the game too soft. Trump brings images of the gladiatorial blood sports of ancient Rome. Entertain the masses.
The scope of response, public comment, and coverage has been unparalleled.
The issues are multifaceted and complex. In many ways, people’s response to the protests and the responses from the sports leagues are based in a fundamental belief that sport is merely a game, merely play. Morality, ethics, and politics are seen as tangible, critical issues. Sports fills in part of our cultural mystique with the intangible aspects of escapism and entertainment. However, questions like those that have been raised in the past week that focus on ethics, morals, and social injustice show us how sport can be a mirror for society, as well as creating society all its own.
There has been strong public reaction, as well as professional reaction from teams, players, coaches, and owners. As the dust has settled over the past few days, it has been apparent that Donald Trump’s sin is the exact same as Colin Kaepernick’s, which runs parallel to other sport figures who have run into controversy, like Tim Tebow. Their sin? Going against one of the primary ethics that guides sport in America. The game must come above all else. Sacrifice, both moral and personal, are needed in order to put team and the game first and reach the mythical sporting promised land.
Many people who are staking out a position of protest against the various actions and reactions of sports figures have called for politics to be kept out of sports. After all, the argument goes, sport is entertainment. Sports is promoted as a unifier, and up until now, it has served as one safe bastion of conversation. While discussions of topics like religion and politics are sure to cause family fights and deep-seated emotional scars to rule the conversation, sports have been deemed a topic that you can raise in mixed company. “Did you see the game last night?” is a commonly ingrained phrase in masculine American culture. While two people may cheer for different teams, the bond and identity through sport ties them together. At the end of the day, fights between UNC fans and Duke fans are simply “part of the game.” Sports has been called the new “opiate of the masses” borrowing a phrase from Marx. Politicians and others in power have used sport to entertain the masses, distracting them from social ills. Give the people the beer and circus of sport, and they won’t see the burning of Rome. The arguments are thinly veiled attempts to carry out the core sport ethic of “game first”.
An interesting episode from this weekend’s sport focus is the tale of Alejandro Villanueva. The Pittsburgh Steelers, as a team, decided to avoid any national anthem protest controversy by staying in the locker room for much of the pre-game ceremonies. Villanueva, a decorated Army veteran of three tours broke the team pact to stay in the locker room, and decided to stand solo outside of the team tunnel during the playing of the national anthem. A war vet, bringing attention to the deep symbolism of the flag and what it means to his service brotherhood, his image was passed around social media by many as being a hero – the right kind of athlete – one that should be getting press, money, and accolades. However, in the hours after his new found fame, Villanueva apologized for going on his own and standing for the anthem. Villanueva should never have felt the need to apologize. While some people may point to his reversal on the standing for the flag as coming from political correctness run amok, what appears to be more powerful isn’t outside pressure, but rather internal team pressure. The NFL locker room is a sacred place – and team is held up as being the most important thing. Only teams that work together (both on and off the field) are held up as being capable of being champions. Individuality weakens the whole. Putting self before the team – before the game – is unethical. Villanueva’s service and actions should be commended – but in the team sport ethic, he was driven to apologize for standing for the anthem.
Calls to separate sports from politics ignore the very nature of sports, especially professional sports, as they are directly married to politics. Saying sports has no room for politics and that athletes should shut up and sit down continues a false narrative. Sports, in many ways, couldn’t exist as we know them today without politics being tied in. Amateur athletics got a major boost in the early 1900s from politicians like Teddy Roosevelt who felt that sports like football not only built character, but also built better soldiers to defend freedom and the American way. Post-World War II saw politicians like John Kennedy promote sports as a way to “beat the Commies!” as American prowess and superiority were shown through Cold War sporting battles with the Soviet Union.
It is relatively easy to see the links between sports and politics when we look at the business side of sports. Injured athletes, for example, fall under worker compensation laws, as they use their bodies daily and get injured on the job. Government entities are in place, partially, to regulate interstate trade, which comes into play any time a team from one state plays a team from another. The NFL has had its share of lawsuits brought about by players in the past few years as labor issues don’t just affect the little man, but also the millionaire athlete. The Spokesman Review’s Jim Allen said that fans (like local product and college football defensive phenom Steve Emtman) who want to see politics removed may have to wait a mighty long time. These ties between politics and sport are ignored, or at least given an apathetic eye in discussions as to whether sports should be separate from politics. When politics are used to maintain the status quo of the sporting ethic, they fulfil their purpose and should surely be involved. However, when a sports figure dares to pull in a contrast to this prime objective, they are chastised.
The discussions, kneeling, statements, and imagery coming out of the weekend highlight the complexities of sports, entertainment, and political discourse in the United States. For the past year, it seems like any topic can be used for division. Interestingly enough, most presidents in the past have used sports as a unifier and equalizer. JFK used touch football games with the family to portray himself as athletic and strong (despite his chronic back pain) and an everyman. Bill Clinton was shown running as questions of his health and weight dominated the headlines. The image of the everyman who has weight issues – and can overcome them with exercise. Other presidents have used golf as a tool for relaxation, but also to show solidarity with the masses (or at least upper-class masses) as they participate in sports. Numerous presidents have used the backdrop of the Olympics as a tool for patriotism and to show America as doing things in the “right” way. The imagery of George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee stadium post-9/11 is the ultimate example of sport imagery used for political and social unification in our modern memory.
President Trump’s attack on sports, it appears, has decided to use sport differently in some key ways. Intentionally or not, Trump has used sport as a talking point to rally his base, further solidifying his reputation amongst his followers as being the man who will say what needs to be said – no matter how politically incorrect it is. Similar to presidents of the past, Trump has used sport as a tool to promote his agenda. Using sport to further divide the common national dialog is what is new. It has been a year since Colin Kaepernick first sat out of, and then took a knee during, the National Anthem. While discussions of Kaepernick’s protest and movement have simmered under the surface, President Trump threw a Molotov cocktail and sent the masses into hysterics. The reaction of fans, athletes, the press, and owners was swift and fierce.
Lost in some level in all of the hubbub of breaking the moral code of sports is the original reason the protests started. Kaepernick’s initial protest was not well defined or delivered. As Kaepernick learned, studied, and opened dialog with veterans, his actions and protest changed. He, under advice from veterans, chose to kneel, showing deference to the flag, while still calling attention to police brutality in the United States. At the time, kneeling was seen as a lesser evil than sitting and ignoring the flag and anthem completely. Kaepernick, contrary to critics who say his protests have had no effect and that he is only a media whore, has done much more than simply kneel. He has donated time, money, efforts, and his notoriety to various causes to enable social change. All of this has been lost in the outcry of people toward the NFL. President Trump has succeeded in making the discussion no longer about Kaepernick’s call to end police brutality toward young African Americans, powerfully deflecting the conversation to focus on patriotism feeding the cultural narrative of the spoiled black athlete. Trump has come out and said that his comments have nothing to do with race. Kaepernick’s protest is about race – speaking out about the protest then, is about race. Saying that the protests, and the response of the president and social media spokespeople is not about race erases the imagery in modern sports of the young black men whose bodies are commoditized by white owners and fans. Be seen – use your body to entertain us and keep us happy – but don’t dare use your mind or words. To say that race has no part in the sport and politics debate is to ignore social and economic realities of sport as it is woven into the social fabric. When it comes to the ethic of sport – that the game is central and anything that distracts from the game is anathema – Kaepernick dared to challenge the ethic. Trump drove a wedge into the social fabric of the centrality of the game.
While the imagery and initial protest were about race, Trump’s tweets and speeches, and the NFL team owners’ responses, have successfully clouded the discussion – making it no longer about racial injustice but rather about Trump, millionaires, billionaires, and who has more patriotism and loyalty that anybody else. NFL owners released various statements, and took various poses in full view of the cameras, this past weekend. They preached unity and a coming together. It wasn’t that Trump spoke out about an athlete, but rather, he dared go against the social norm of sport, football in particular, as being a way to bring people together. He tried to hijack the powerful socializing role sport has played. Each of the teams presented statements and symbolic made for TV pictures of “unification” through sport. The game is a tool that can be used to bring everybody together – therefore the game must be upheld as the primary concern. Justice took a back seat to unity.
Unification is a powerful word, and is one that, in light of the fatigue many have with political fighting, falls as water to the thirsting masses. We seem to be longing for places of unity and commonality. The NFL made the conscious decision this past week to brand market “unity through football” in order to capitalize on that thirst. Where the president sought to divide his base believers from those politically opposed, the NFL chose to protect the brand by calling for unity.
The NFL presented unity as the cure – but unity in what? Why did the NFL owners choose this weekend to address the kneeling protests en masse? Why did they decide that kneeling this week was important? This is not the first time that Donald Trump spoke out against the protesters. Last year during the campaign, impugning NFL protesters was a part of Trump’s standard stump speech. Was this a call to unity to stand with the African American athletes who are speaking out against police violence? Only one NFL team’s statement even discussed any part of the social justice debate (thank you, Seattle Seahawks). Was it a call to unity to stand with those who battle systemic injustice? Or, as some social commentators have asked, has the NFL successfully turned a protest to call attention to racism into a watered down and safely marketed argument that “all lives matter” and that we should, then, be unified. Why is the NFL interested in social justice protests now? The NFL is a business and their response is one of finances and the long term profitability of the shield. Standing in unity for those on societies edges is dirty, difficult business. Standing linking arms in unity for the sporting ethic is easy. Unity, it seems, means that dominant social norms can return, and the distraction of a quarterback dropping the perfect pass into the end zone can win out.
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