Primetime Justice

Editor discusses the role of politics in sport.

Xiang Zhang, Copy

From the NFL donating to help dismantle systemic racism to teams in the English Premier League kneeling before games, politics and sports have become visibly intertwined. Across the world, various sports leagues have begun to champion social justice issues, often to great controversy. This raises the question: what role should politics and political advocacy play in sports?

To understand the modern relationship between sports and politics, it is useful to first examine the past.  From the very first Olympic Games to now, sports have always provided a window into the society of the time, as entertainment is as much a part of culture as anything else. From the Mesoamerican ball game being played with human sacrifice, to FC Barcelona becoming a symbol for Catalonian identity and independence, sports naturally tend to reflect their broader environments. Beyond even those generalized views, individual athlete-activists like Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King have been prolific throughout history.

However, with increasing the commercialization and corporatization of leagues like the NFL, NBA, and countless others, the situation has changed. Even though sports were often political in the past, it was at least somewhat organic, but now these causes are being championed by the leagues themselves. As the NBA’s Hong Kong controversy showed, these leagues are businesses first, even if they characterize themselves as progressive. By the nature of capitalism, they are fundamentally corporations dedicated to maximizing profit for their owners/investors, and social justice will therefore always be subsidiary to profit.

For example, several years ago, the NFL made promises to hire more female employees and executives in order to challenge sexist workplace culture. But when the league itself recently found that Cleaveland Browns QB Deshuan Watson committed sexual assault against multiple women and only suspended him for 11 games, it is apparent that they are not genuinely committed to social justice. For context, the Kansas City Chiefs’ LB Willie Gay was recently suspended four games, a third of Watson’s suspension, for breaking a vacuum cleaner in a fight. 

Regardless if you agree or not with the politics, Colin Kaepernick taking the knee was a deeply influential gesture. Having every team be obligated to kneel before every top-flight English soccer match, not as much. When athletes share their beliefs, no matter what they are, it is at least genuine. When leagues do it, too often is it just for PR, instead of a real attempt at reform. Sports leagues are driven by a financial calculus. The moment they think maintaining a progressive image becomes more expensive than not, they will immediately switch course. Until that changes, I cannot bring myself to appreciate empty words and empty actions.