Why sport matters in this US election - Grant Jarvie
The voices and actions of athletes have become a powerful antidote to conservative reactionary policies of Republican sports owned franchises and the politics of sport in Trump America.
Shortly after the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the BBC asked how it would impact upon sport? Would talk of threatening trade deals, tariffs on imported goods, building walls and isolationist rhetoric affect the global ambitions of the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA) or Major League Baseball (MLB).
The major sports owners showed their Republican colours during the 2016 election. The four major sports leagues all had Republican leanings, and yhe total sport donations to Republican candidates or committees ($23,378, 415) swamped the contributions made to Democrat candidates and causes ($2, 728, 868).
NFL owners were the most prolific with $8,052,410.00 going to Republican causes compared to $189.610.72 to Democrat causes. Baseball followed with $6,204,732.07 for the Republicans and $912,402.88 for the Democrats. NHL team owners donated a total of $4,613,232.76 of which $4,087,952 went to Republican efforts.
Trump wasted no time using sport to energise his base. His familiarity with American football, allowed him to further link patriotism to American football as he started to repeal Obama policies. But athletes have also used sport to resist Trump’s conservatism.
They have been playing baseball in Cuba since 1864. Ties with the US were severed in 1961. Obama restored diplomatic ties in 2015. It was baseball that brought Cuba and the US out from half a century of cold war deep freeze. This was not just sport in action but soft power in action.
During the 2016 election campaign the president elect tweeted that he would "terminate" the policy on normalising relations with Cuba. On 16 June 2017, President Trump announced that he was suspending what he called a "completely one-sided deal with Cuba”. Trump characterised Obama's policy as having granted Cuba economic sanctions relief for nothing in return.
Eleven months earlier Colin Kaepernick’s had remained seated during the national anthem on August 26, 2016 and asserted that he would stand when the American flag represented what it was supposed to represent. 29 per cent of Americans approved of the San Francisco 49ers action. 72 per cent of African American men and women supported the protest. In the first two years of Trump’s presidency, 20 sports teams earned titles but ten of those teams either refused to visit the White House or were not invited. Two weeks after the US women’s football team almost shutdown the centre of Manhattan having won the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Megan Rapinoe, the team’s co-captain talked openly about her public stand-off with the US President, who accused her of disrespecting her country, the White House and the flag.
It is important to reflect on the pace and extent of the change given that not so long-ago Kaepernick was driven out of the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem and during the summer of 2020 the entire NBA took a knee. Whereas Trump likens Black Lives Matter to criminals and terrorists, 'Black Lives Matter' was emblazoned on every court as the remainder of the 2019-20 season played out with widespread TV coverage and every player wearing a social justice slogan as major sponsors ran advertising. In many ways this helped to legitimise the dissent that fuels the anti-Trump forces in the 2020 election.
The sports industry itself has fallen out of favour with 2020 voters. For the first time in Gallup's 20 years of tracking Americans' views of various sectors, the sports industry is losing the most ground, with only the pharmaceutical industry and the federal government having worse negative views.
The change comes as professional and college leagues are struggling to maintain regular schedules amid the pandemic. It also comes as professional football, baseball and basketball games have been suspended to highlight the Black Lives Matter movement and as more athletes use their platform in sport to voice political perspectives, no matter of the consequences.
As part of the reaction to Covid-19, many US Olympic athletes supported the call to postpone the 2020 Olympics in the interests of public health, and some US teams lent their arenas for shelters, food depots, testing sites and now voting stations. Something that implicitly challenges the Trump message that the virus is 'no big deal' and that voting is likely to be rigged.
Athletes at every level, coaches, some team owners, and fans are speaking out about the administration’s lack of transparency and antipathy toward equality. Major professional leagues saw wildcat strikes that temporarily disabled sports events, showing widespread discontent with Trump’s presidency and the flex of political muscle that athletes know they possess.
In 2020, after a ground-swell of actions in sport at all levels, athletes making political statements, taking political positions, and engaging in political action has become acceptable. Politics in US sport is now ordinary.
Whereas the sports contribution to 2016 US election was remarkable for the amount of sports money that supported Republican causes, the 2020 election is remarkable for the impact that the athletes are having.
To be sure Republican affiliations in the NFL, the NCAA and major team owners continue to shore up aspects of the status quo and Trump’s worldview but the message in 2020 is different from 2016 in that significant components of mainstream sport support significant social change.
Athletes using the space, profile, and platform given to them to make a difference and challenge the narrative is a sporting political force that is needed as much as ever.
Professor Grant Jarvie is Chair of Sport at the University of Edinburgh’s and a Visiting Professor - University of Toronto
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