In the United States, sports, much like music and film, act as a reflection of the social climate and culture. Despite this fact, you will often hear people complain about sports becoming “too political,” but the truth is, they’ve been politicized for DECADES.
We began to see the “keep politics out of sports” rhetoric re-emerge when Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the national anthem as a protest of the disproportionate rates at which Black people were being killed by the police. Many chastised him for bringing his social and political beliefs to the field, without realizing that the “The Star Spangled Banner” being played before athletic competitions is about as political as you can get. In 2015, the Department of Defense (DOD) paid pro sports teams $6.8 million of taxpayers’ money to play the national anthem and honor the military during games. One might wonder why they would do that, and what interest the DOD would have in NFL/NBA/NHL/MLB/MLS games. Well wonder no more, because your government is using competitive sports in their military recruitment tactics. That’s right, people are getting mad at guys for kneeling during the national anthem, accusing them of disrespecting veterans and the song isn’t even being played to honor the Armed Forces—it’s being played to get young folks to join the military. Which may actually come in handy, considering your president (not mine) is on the precipice of inciting World War III from his Twitter account, and he’ll need all the soldiers he can get.
Did I mention that the aforementioned $6.8 million was part of the $53 million the Department of Defense spent on marketing/advertising contracts with sports teams from 2012-2015? Yes, in only three years the DOD spent FIFTY THREE MILLION DOLLARS on promotion at sporting events to subliminally convince you to join the military.
Want to know the kicker? The DOD has been using the anthem as a recruiting tool since just before World War II, beginning with baseball games. By the 1950s, it was commonplace for all major sports, including college and high school levels, and today it has trickled down to Little League and Pee Wee games.
“Paid Patriotism” is far from the only way in which the US has used sports to accomplish a political goal. In 1980, the United States protested the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan by boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics. The US has literally used sports as an international political weapon, in a conflict that had absolutely nothing to do with us, but when Colin Kaepernick takes a knee in protest of human rights violations in THIS COUNTRY, people want act as if he’s stepping out of his lane. I call BS. The US has a long and sordid history of politicizing sports and athletes to further its own agenda, why can’t players use that same platform to enact social change?
Speaking of “furthering an agenda,” in 1971, during the World Table Tennis Championships, the United States used a ping pong player (yes y’all, ping pong) to build a relationship with the Chinese national team, during a time when China/US relations were strained, no Americans had been allowed on Chinese soil for DECADES, and China deemed it a crime to even speak to Americans. However, after this interaction, the US table tennis team was invited to China for a friendly competition, and a few months later President Nixon visited the country and subsequently lifted a 21-year trade embargo. This series of events is called “Ping Pong Diplomacy, and it changed US/China relations forever. Let that sink in for a minute. The United States Government used the World Tennis Championships to end a decades-long trade embargo.
But you want to point your finger at Kaepernick for “politicizing sports”? EL OH EL. You better pick up a history book, because that ship sailed a long time ago.
The irony of the NFL commissioner and team owners denouncing Donald Trumps’ comments is that these men blacklisted Kaepernick for doing the exact same thing. Colin publicly condemned the American flag for representing systems and policies that were not aligned with it’s claimed ideology. Roger Goodell, along with team owners, publicly condemned Donald Trump (who’s position acts as a representation of America, similar to the flag) for representing “divisiveness and a lack of respect,” which is not aligned with the claimed ideology of that office. So basically they get a pat on the back for doing the exact same thing for which Colin Kaepernick lost his job.
Don’t let these NFL owners pull the wool over your eyes. Those statements released yesterday are worthless at best, because publicly disapproving of Donald Trump means nothing if you’re going to privately fund him. I don’t care if you’re locking arms with players during the anthem (*cough cough* Shad Khan *cough cough*), you put your money where your mouth was and you let us know exactly where your alliance lies. Here are the NFL team owners that we are certain donated to the Trump campaign and/or inauguration fund:
- Woody Johnson, New York Jets ($1 million)
- Robert Kraft, New England Patriots ($1 million, he also gave Trump a Super Bowl ring)
- Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys ($1 million, no shocker here)
- Dan Snyder, Washington Redskins (unknown amount)
- Shad Khan, Jacksonville Jaguars ($1 million, he’s also Muslim, and funded the campaign of someone fighting for a Muslim travel ban. Confused much?)
- Bob McNair, Houston Texans ($2 million)
- Stan Kroenke, Los Angeles Rams ($1 million, he also owns the Denver Nuggets NBA team and Colorado Avalanche NHL team)
- Edward Glazer, Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($300,000)
And these are just the ones we know about.
Now that we know all this, let me make sure I’m understanding: The Department of Defense can financially support paid patriotism at sporting events for over 80 years, the United States can use the Olympics to interfere in Soviet/Afghan conflicts and use table tennis to end trade embargoes, and NFL owners can fund presidential campaigns, but if a Black player speaks out on racism it’s suddenly politicizing athletic events and they should “stick to sports?”
The U.S. government set the precedent long ago that there is no line between sports and politics.
Black athletes have long used sporting events as a means of shining a light on racism in America. We all know about John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists to signify the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics, Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in the Vietnam war because “no yellow man had ever called him a nigger”, Kareem Abdul Jabbar boycotting the 1968 Olympics to bring attention to racial injustice, and so on and so forth. The interesting thing about all of these men is that during that time, they were called “unpatriotic,” “divisive,” and everything else under the sun. But 50 years later, they are remembered as the activists who stood on the right side of history. Ironically, people will honor Kareem, Ali, Tommie and John, then turn around and condemn Colin Kaepernick and other athletes for taking a knee during the national anthem (that’s only being played so you’re inspired to risk your life in a war).
If I’m being completely honest, I don’t believe that ANY Black athlete (or anyone for that matter) should stand for “The Star Spangled Banner”. Ever. I know that sounds extreme, but hear me out. Have you ever read the lyrics to that song in their entirety? We only hear the first stanza at sporting events, but the third stanza reads:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Yes, you are reading that correctly. The third stanza of the United States’ national anthem celebrates killing slaves that tried to pursue freedom. The song was written during the War of 1812, which began because the U.S. tried to take Canada from the British. Part of the British strategy was to recruit slaves to fight on their side with the reward of freedom in Canada. Consequently, if a slave was fighting for the British and was caught by the United States military, they were murdered. This is what you’re honoring as you gaze at the American flag with nostalgia.
Expecting Black athletes, the descendants of those slaves, to stand for the Star Spangled Banner is not patriotic, it’s sadistic.
If you didn’t have an problem with players doing the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise awareness for ALS, JJ Watt raising $17 million for Hurricane Harvey relief, or Tom Brady endorsing Donald Trump for president, but complain about Black players addressing injustices, bigotry, and a president who is a white supremacist, it’s not that you take issue with athletes addressing social issues—you have an issue with Black athletes addressing racism.
History has shown us that an overlap between sports and politics is inevitable. Athletic events have long acted as a platform for political and social expression, by players, fans, owners, and teams. It has always been used as a tool to enact social change. Right now sporting events are acting as a mirror to America, and it doesn’t like what it sees. However, rather than change the reflection, some Americans would rather blame the looking glass.
One thing is for certain: you cannot separate sports and politics. They are two sides of the same coin.