Since last Sunday’s Super Bowl, wailing and lamentations have been heard from all quarters. Ads by 84 Lumber, Coke, Budweiser, and Airbnb, have spawned screeds online like, “I Was a Huge NFL Fan, But Now That It Politicizes Everything I Quit.” And, of course, Twitter Fingers McGhee weighed in from the White House.
But I feel compelled to point out: sports shouldn’t “get” political is an extraordinarily white thing to think. Sports has always been political.
When Jesse Owens set twelve world records in forty-five minutes at the 1936 Olympics in front of Hitler’s face to refute Nazi race “science,” sports was political.
When Jack Johnson’s series of opponents in the early 1900s were deemed “Great White Hopes” to defeat him, sports was political.
When Joe Louis’s boxing matches against Max Schmeling’s in 1936 and ’38 were regarded as bouts between American democracy vs. German Fascism, sports was political.
Fights between U.S. vs. Soviet boxers, up through the ’80s, were likewise treated as a commentary on the superiority of American capitalism or Soviet Communism. Political.
That Augusta National Golf Course Club didn’t have a black member until 1990 and didn’t have a woman member (Condoleezza Rice) until 2012, was political.
Sports was political when Apartheid South Africa insisted on stamping Arthur Ashe’s passport “Honorary White” in order to let him play tennis in their country.
The routine pelting of African and Afro-European soccer players with monkey sounds and banana peels in European stadiums is political.
The fact for most of the history of football, black players were deemed lacking enough “intelligence” to be quarterbacks was political. (Still today, black high school QBs are 39% more likely to be asked to switch positions when they enter college.) The epic, racialized Boston-Larry Byrd vs. L.A.-Magic Johnson rivalry of the 80s was political, as is, the well-documented ebb-and-flow of white viewership of the NBA, depending on how the stars change.
When Ali was criticized for his political stance against the Vietnam War, and Smith and Carlos for their “Black Power” fists at the ’68 Olympics, and LeBron for wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt, and Kaepernick for his anthem protest, their critics don’t mind politics in sports. They just disagree with Ali’s, Smith’s, Carlos’s, LeBron’s, and Kaepernick’s politics.
Sports are inseverable from the profits they generate, the socio-political factors attracting their fandom, and the engine of inequality, racial hierarchy, and labor exploitation which they fuel. Twice every week, a field composed of 70% black guys, led by 80%+ white coaches, play for over 83% white fans and generate over $13 billion in profits – 13 times the GDP of Somalia – for an all-white billionaire ownership. Americans don’t tolerate capping salaries in any other job, except one that happens to yield so many black millionaires: pro athletes.
NBA. NFL. MLB. 3 leagues. 92 teams. Only one black principal owner.
As a black man who grew up in projects with basketball courts around almost every corner, I can’t watch sports without thinking about all the guys I grew up with whose hopes, mom’s hopes, family’s hopes for getting out of the hood rode on that ball. I can’t help but regard as perverse a system that encouraged this as the singularly most visible, lucrative path out of the hood.
I can’t watch NCAA ball without having ever on my mind the twisted, revolting system of preventing “gifts,” to which Shabazz Napier –AAC “Player of the Year,” U-Conn’s 4th all-time leading scorer, and first-round NBA draft pick – testifies to the consequences. “There are hungry nights” where “I go to bed and I’m starving.” That’s obscene.
Nor can I watch college sports without having on my mind stories like CNN’s, “UNC Report Finds 18 Years of Academic Fraud to Keep Athletes Playing.”
Joke “paper” classes, helping athletes cheat, barely-veiled schemes of academic fraud, and worse, tutors who took exams and classes for athletes, and “phantom classes” which didn’t even exist at all. This all says: we don’t care about your life prospects. After U of L shooting guard Kevin Ware’s 2013 ghastly leg break, there was media discussion about whether he’d lose his scholarship to stay in college.
Taken together, it displays an ethic of grinding down, chewing up, spitting out, then discarding mostly-black bodies with wantonly inhumane disregard purely for public entertainment, and to generate profits which they’ll see precious little of. Thus, bodies exist to be consumed. As grist for a behemoth entertainment-exploitation juggernaut. Quenching the viewing public’s never-ending, insatiable thirst for more.
No wonder at only 33, Andre Iguodala sounds like a man who’s already given his life over to soul-crushing nihilism:
“If I’m supposed to die over basketball, I’m supposed to die. So I guess it’s over with…If we didn’t play basketball, they wouldn’t give a damn about who we were as people. No one would invest any time in us [and] who we are. But I guess we give them an outlet or an escape from their lives. They’re emotionally attached to us…This is kind of the world we live in right now.”
One hears in that: neither hope nor promise, only resignation. A fate not so much chosen, as acquiesced to by default.
With kids as young as 10 being prospectively scouted, we’re spiraling toward the day when the NFL Combine will happen at the mother’s first Ultrasound visit. Not long after, store shelves will be stocked with “Strapping Young Buck” Similac, and Ready-for-the-Auction-Block pregnancy vitamins. We’ve already issued the first patents unleashing the Frankenstein monster of tinkering with genes to breed future Hall-of-Famer “designer babies.” Such a future is not only morally indistinguishable from the antebellum practice of breeding slaves for strength, it’s Version 2.0
If you never noticed politics in your sports, that’s likely your privilege talking; because I cannot unsee the politics in mine. Out of sight, out of mind, we lay waste to whole communities by failure to invest in more than one path – a narrow, unlikely one at that – out. Men like Iguodala sound gripped by an almost mercenary-like despondency.
Yet we’re so indifferent to these athlete’s physical, mental, and financial well-being, that it’s a massive fight just to pass the most threadbare “concussion protocols.” Still backlashing against them, Dear Leader, says football “like our country” has “become soft.” A great many knowingly returned to games after numerous concussions, because ‘football is all I have’ or ‘all I know.’ It’s an unspeakable tragedy to not care whether you live or die. Or feel you have no other options.
We’ve long past that scary, dystopian juncture in Hunger Games of telling ourselves the lie: “May the odds be ever in your favor.” For most, they never are.