Image Description: San Francisco 49ers kneel during the National Anthem
Are politics and sport really that inseparable? Or should we view the sporting arena as a platform that inevitably and rightly is used to further social progress?
After the US boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Avery Brundage, the acting International Olympic Committee President during WWII, proclaimed his belief that politics and sport, and in particular the Olympic Games, should not mix. He viewed political issues and the Olympics as “mutually exclusive.” Likewise, in 1956, after six countries withdrew from the Melbourne Olympics in protest of the Suez crisis and the Hungarian invasion, Brundage historically declared: “By their decisions, these countries show that they are unaware of one of our most important principles, namely that sport is completely free of politics.”
Brundage’s sentiment could not have been further from the mark with regard to the relationship between sport, politics, and the Olympics as we moved forwards in the later 20th and 21st century. And yet, figures such as Ben Shapiro and Donald Truly continue to insist on the separation of the two spheres.
Brundage historically declared: “By their decisions these countries show that they are unaware of one of our most important principles, namely that sport is completely free of politics.”
In 2016, politics and sport clashed yet again with Colin Rand Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem of the San Francisco 49ers third preseason game, in order to protest police brutality and racial inequality in the United States. His actions inspired protests throughout the season but triggered polarized reactions. After the 2017 season, Kaepernick was not resigned with any club and remains a free agent, with many analysts attributing this to his political activity. Should politics inhibit sporting success?
The highly politicized issue became a political drum banged relentlessly by President Donald Trump, intensifying the movement. For example, in September 2017 the President encouraged NFL owners to “fire” players who protested during the national anthem, and imagined the situation with glee in which NFL owners opted to “get that son of a bitch off the field”.
In September 2017 the President encouraged NFL owners to “fire” players who protested during the national anthem, and imagined the situation with glee in which NFL owners opted to “get that son of a bitch off the field”.
In 2020, this protest received further attention amidst the protests against police brutality and racism following the death of George Floyd. Many athletes have since taken to social media to protest, including National Basketball Association star LeBron James. Since the restart of the NBA other players have also come together to support the Black Lives Matter movement, with gestures including wearing the name of those who have fallen victim to police brutality on their personal clothing.
As Donald Trump did in 2017, Ben Shapiro in 2020 has suggested a separation of sport and politics, with two leagues for each of the four major US sports, one permitting and one prohibiting the expression of political views. He points out that even the word ‘sport’ originates in the old French word disport (from which comes the modern French word for sport, déport), meaning leisure, pastime, recreation, or pleasure. From here, Shapiro claims that political views “impede the play” and has specifically criticised LeBron James, “who is basically willing to virtue-signal on behalf of the communist Chinese government but rip Drew Brees [to pieces]”. This has all escalated to the point where Shaprio claims “I don’t want to watch sports. My place of comfort has been removed from me and it may not be restored until there are actual sports leagues that remove politics from the sports”. Unsurprisingly, in light of conservative rhetoric on this issue, many on the ‘Left’ have felt little sympathy for Shapiro’s loss of safe space.
Since the restart of the NBA other players have also come together to support the Black Lives Matter movement, with gestures including wearing the name of those who have fallen victim to police brutality on their personal clothing.
It is unrealistic to expect or even to hope for the separation of politics and sports. Professional athletes are not robots fuelling their bodies and then exerting power. They have opinions and should be allowed to express them. They work immensely hard to reach the elite echelons of their sport, and in return should be allowed to use their platform as they please. Indeed, the sporting arena is an enormous platform, making it useful in attempts to mitigate social issues and raise political awareness. The National Basketball Association, for instance, is popular around the world, with an average of 20 million viewers per final game – as cited, Basketball featured among the sports that saw players take the knee during the national anthem in 2020, bolstered by messages of social justice on the backs of their jerseys in the midst of this year’s social upheaval.
Ultimately, as long as no harm comes to others, athletes should have the right to use their sporting stage to raise issues pertinent to them, without negative fear of the impact on their career.