Let’s Face It – Sports Are Political

The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs have started this weekend and despite me not thinking they should happen, they’re happening whether I like it or not. They started with a bunch of exhibition games last week where the NHL teams stood side by side with the other team in “solidarity during pregame ceremonies to condemn racism and support the fight for equality” (NHL, Instagram).

Do I think what the NHL is doing so far is enough to support Black Lives Matter or proving that Hockey is in fact for Everyone? No. Do I write this to them in every survey they send me? I certainly do. Do I hope that one day they’ll get the message? Yes. And sooner would be better than later.

But, my opinion on this is irrelevant and also not the point of this post. Let’s back up and first start by saying that these statements became a necessity due to the current political climate where a lot of Black people continue to lose their lives due to police violence during a global pandemic in the year 2020. (This isn’t saying that this isn’t an ongoing issue, it has been for a while. I’m just pointing out that for what feels like the first time, people and organizations are finally taking notice.)

Numerous other sports leagues have shown solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and condemning racism by kneeling or walking off the court, so the NHL “showing solidarity” is something that should be expected. But, those in the comments sections of the post keeping yelling to “keep politics out of sports” (see photo examples below and many more on the post these are screen-capped from here) and frankly, I’m just getting tired of seeing that. Sports are political, they’ve always been political, and we really should stop trying to pretend that they aren’t.

So, just how have sports always been political? Well, I would argue they started that way. Sports have been used as diplomacy efforts between nation-states since what I would basically call the beginning of sports. At the very beginning of the article Two Halves of Sports Diplomacy, Stuart Murray explains an historic example, “During the Ancient Olympiad, for example, the Truce was an aspirational ideal that aimed to offer travelling fans and competitors’ protection during the Games.” (Murray,  2012, p. 556) Just think about that. The Olympic Games would offer protection to travelers seeing the games regardless of whether they would get it otherwise. Seems super political to me. He goes on to talk about other ways sports have been used politically, like the 1980 Boycott of the Olympics by the US or the 2002 Japan-South Korea World Cup (Murray, 2012, p. 556). Totally political moves.

We like to think of sports as some magical neutral ground where it doesn’t matter who you are, where you came from, or what you believe in, but the love of the game brings everyone together and puts everyone on equal footing. And in some cases, that can be true. It can certainly feel that way when a team wins and there is euphoria running through everyone’s veins. But, for the most part, that’s not at all the case. Erin Tarver (2017) in her book “The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity” argues that “…everyday practices and meaning of sports fandom contribute to the meaning and retrenchment of race, to the regulation of gender and sexuality, and to the cohesion of regions and classes, it not only constitutes selves but contributes to the regulation and normalization of whole populations” (p. 55). Sports and sports fandom reflect the society they are a part of and continue to reinforce the social norms that society holds. But, they can also help shape society. This inherently makes them political because from how I see it, sporting teams become damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they comment on a cause, such as supporting a minority group in their sporting community, that’s political. If they don’t make any statement, that’s another type of statement that can also be read as political, even if it’s meant not to be.

So, come on now. Let’s face it. Sports are political. And I’m so tired of seeing the argument that they shouldn’t be. Sports fandom creates communities and I think that if they are going to “exert normative forces well beyond the sporting arena” (Tarver, 2017, p. 23)  and are “creating and reinforcing social norms and behaviors” (Tarver, 2017, p. 23), then they should be ones that help to move society to a better place.  And if you don’t like it, maybe it’s because you don’t like facing the fact that your politics don’t align with the direction that the sport is moving in. Tarver (2017) says that “…sports fans use their fandom to create and reassert the characteristics of the “we” to which they are loyal. How this happens, however, is a complex affair. In order to use their fandom this way, sports fans need to identify both with “their” team and with the larger community that it is supposed to represent…” (p. 56). Essentially, in order for a fan to support a team, they need to identify with it. And if you’re having problems identifying with the politics your team is spouting, it’s obvious that you’d want to keep politics out of sports because the addition of them means you can’t identify as easily. But, as I pointed out above, politics and sports have been intertwined for a very long time. We really just need to accept that.

Cool, glad to get that out of my system. Maybe this will stop me from wanting to start fights on the Internet with these people. Though I doubt it.

References

Murray, S. (2012). The Two Halves of Sports-Diplomacy. Diplomacy & Statecraft, 23, 576–592. 10.1080/09592296.2012.706544

NHL.[@nhl]. (2020, July 30). NHL clubs — including the fiercest of rivals — stood together in solidarity during pregame ceremonies to condemn racism and support the fight for equality. [Instagram]. Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/p/CDSwzysltJE/

Tarver, E. (2017). The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity. The University of Chicago Press.

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