Opinion: The Politics of Sports

Jul 08, 2020

Since Super Bowl LIV on 2/2/20, sports fans have missed major live sports entertainment.

When the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL finally return to play, along with college sports and others, expect lots of politics alongside 3-pointers, home runs,
touchdowns, and hat tricks.

And there will be nothing new about that.

It is common to hear fans asserting their desire to escape from polarizing pubic debate when they watch and bet on games and root for their teams.

Fair enough.  Especially after the Covid - 19 lockdowns, fans may wish to experience the joy of victory and the agony of defeat without the unrelenting posturing and commentary that dominates our public affairs.

ESPN in particular in recent years has repeatedly irritated millions of viewers who tune in for nightly highlights, but are hit with some really sharp-edged political bias as well.

Nevertheless, sports is part of society, and made up of human beings with agendas and interests and passions. Any honest review of modern sports culture reveals it has long been political.

Let’s start with the finance of sports.  Should leagues even receive anti-trust legal exemption?  Should team owners receive publicly-supported stadium deals and tax breaks?

Sports teams may compete on the field, but franchises “collude” as part of a massive entertainment enterprise.

The NFL draft, for example, assigns to weaker performing teams the right to draft better players first, with the goal of creating talent parity, as close games and close playoff races generate billion$ in gross TV revenue for owners (who are actually teammates).

Legislation and public policy affects teams and athletes and their labor negotiations and work rules, use of performance-enhancing drugs, and even when teams play due to pandemic, natural disaster, or in times of war.

The history of lobbying and legislation over sports gambling is also well-noted.

Team names and apparel can certainly be political.  The Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians are now actively considering changing their names due to longstanding sensitivities expressed by native-American advocates.

For the Phoenix Suns May 5th, 2010 playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs, owner Robert Sarver had his team wear jerseys which read “Los Suns,” in protest of a new immigration law in the state of Arizona.

Internationally, the Olympic Movement features intense competition to host the winter and summer games (with infrastructure often putting nations in considerable debt).

National boycotts over geopolitics have included:

-- In 1908, Irish athletes boycotted the London games because Britain refused to grant Irish independence.

-- In 1958, China withdrew from the 1960 Rome Olympics, seeking Taiwan’s ban.

-- In response the International Olympic Committee, with the support of the Soviet Union but in opposition to U.S. desires, advised Taiwan no longer to march under the name "The Republic of China.” Taiwan considered boycotting the games, but decided to attend, holding up a sign reading, "Under Protest.”

-- In 1980, 62 countries led by the USA boycotted the Moscow summer Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas, 1979.

-- In retaliation the Soviet Union and other Warsaw pact members organized a boycott of the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.

The Olympics of course, now includes professional athletes, violating the spirit of amateur competition, though even younger competitors are often trained with state sponsorship and support.  Every two years the games commence with a formal parade of nations and flag waiving on behalf of "Team Canada," etc.

Today’s social movements are having a large impact on corporations, and professional sports leagues are no exception.

The NBA plans to paint Black Lives Matter next to three arena sidelines at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

The NFL is planning on playing the “black national anthem” song: 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' before the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ each Week 1 game this September.

While NASCAR clarified that a discovered garage pull rope was innocent of any bad actor racial intent as a “noose,” driver Bubba Wallace now drives a car with a black lives matter logo, and NASCAR is banning confederate flags from its events and properties.

There is quite some history to this mix of politics and sports.

Several legendary athletes sacrificed prime years of their sports careers to serve in the Armed Forces, particularly Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest batter in the history of baseball, who enlisted in the U.S Navy and served with distinction in both World War II and the Korean War.

Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman became a legend for quitting his sport after the 2001 season to enlist as an elite U.S. Army Ranger.  He was killed in action after distinguished service in Afghanistan.

Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the "color barrier” as a Los Angeles Dodger, in 1947, remains so iconic that every April 15th, every ballplayer in the Major Leagues dons a uniform with the same #42 in his honor.

Cassius Clay Jr. changed his name to Muhammed Ali in 1964 after joining the Nation of Islam. Citing his religious beliefs, Ali refused military induction and was stripped of his heavyweight championship and banned from boxing for three years during the prime of his career.

Of course many Christian ballplayers have engaged in philanthropy and led religious services for their teammates. Jewish players who observed high holiday services while missing team games famously include L.A. Dodgers Sandy Koufax and Sean Green.

Before San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the U.S. National Anthem, in 2016, Toronto first baseman Carlos Delgado, protesting U.S. foreign policy, back in 2004, decided no longer to stand for the singing of "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch of Major League Baseball games.

More famously, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood atop the medal platform with their heads bowed and their right hands raised to the sky, fists clenched in "Black Power" salute protest over racial issues.

Today, social media of course displays a wide range of controversial political comments.  LeBron James, as just one example, has been criticized for his sharply negative social commentary.

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson recently posted quotes on Instagram from Minister Louis Farrakhan, and another attributed to Adolf Hitler.

And the NBA came under withering criticism for appearing to side with the Chinese Community Party rather than the human rights of the citizens living in Hong Kong.

Last year Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” Prescient, as China has indeed now abolished Hong Kong independence and is arresting dissidents and imposing totalitarian rule.  Unfortunately, NBA owners and league management rushed to stand by large marketing contracts with mainland China rather than remain credible social justice advocates.

Finally, while many national elected political leaders were college athletes, the highly regarded set of professional ballplayers who went on to significant careers in politics includes Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley, Jim Bunning, Bob Mathias, Tom McMillen, Jim Ryun, Steve Largent, Kevin Johnson, Heath Shuler, Jon Runyan, and Jesse Ventura.

Noteworthy members of the Judiciary included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, Alan Page, Duke Slater, and Dwayne Woodruff.

Of course, success on the field does not always guarantee victory in the political arena.

Respected U.S. Olympics honcho and MLB leader Peter Ueberroth lost his race to become governor of California in 2003, registering only .4% of the vote.  A weightlifter - actor named Arnold Schwarzenegger wrestled the top spot in the special election.

And Walter “Big Train” Johnson, the Hall-of-Fame pitcher for the Washington Senators, lost a race for U.S. Congress in 1940 when he promised to “study up on them issues” once elected.  The voters balked.


Guest contributor Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute who has morphed from innocent boyhood SoCal sports fan to cynical Las Vegas sports observer, without current games to bet on.  Greenfield can be contacted at:  lrgsavvy@gmail.com