Is there a place for political activism in sport?

The allure of sports for most fans stems from a desire for escapism, an opportunity to get away from the stresses of everyday life and become immersed in supporting their favourite team.

As a result, it certainly seems the consensus that the majority of dedicated sports viewers do not watch the events for the political demonstrations that sometimes occur during them.

Many feel the two should not even be remotely analogous, seeking a clear divide between the worlds of politics and that of sports. However, this is simply impossible.

Politics today plays a major role in sports as it has done for generations, and it will continue to do so far into the future.

Some connections are clear, with the most successful sports teams in America often invited to the White House to meet the President (although this is not always welcomed by some stars).

Less obvious are decisions such as the relocation of certain sports teams, but politics plays a major role in this too, often determining how the new stadiums are funded and built.

Another aspect – particularly in American sports – which is often the site of political protests, is the playing of the national anthem.

It is here that Colin Kaepernick’s story began, with his progression from sitting out the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner to kneeling during it, an image that has become symbolic after further political protests in the 3 years since.

The former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers did so to protest against the police brutality and racial inequality that is so rife in American society.

He is not the first to do so. Six-time NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycotted playing on the men’s Olympic basketball team for the same reasons in 1968.

Instead, he worked with underprivileged children in New York, teaching them basketball in an attempt to keep them safe.

In the 2019 Pan American Games, fencer Race Imboden took a knee after winning a gold medal and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist akin to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who struck that iconic pose in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

For this, the two athletes were given 12 months’ probation from their respective disciplines, with the International Olympic Committee expected to be even stricter.

However, even this pales in comparison to the tragic impact that Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest has had on his career as a professional athlete.

NFL players – unlike those in the NBA – do not have fully guaranteed contracts.

Thus, when Colin Kaepernick left the San Francisco 49ers in 2017, reports have estimated that he may have received less than $40 million of the six-year, $126 million contract he was awarded three years prior.

Admittedly, this is still a substantial fee, but – with that accepted – it is clear that it is a far larger loss for an individual that was awarded that contract for leading his team to consecutive NFC championship games and one Super Bowl.

Far worse than these earnings though, Colin Kaepernick lost his livelihood.

President Trump directed NFL bosses to “fire” those who would not stand for the national anthem and whilst many stopped short of this, Kaepernick has not been re-signed since.

The argument that he would be a distraction for most teams due to his political activism is strong, when it is considered the focus that elite athletes must be able to have on their game alone.

However, when it is considered that Kaepernick has received support for his actions from throughout the sporting world, this certainly seems a peculiar position to adopt.

A player debatably good enough to start for a mid-tier team and beyond any doubt of the quality to be a back-up for any NFL team, has found himself jettisoned from the league without any viable point of re-entry.

It is then, clear as day that Kaepernick’s actions had a monumental effect on his life. But were they worthwhile? They certainly had an impact on a global scale.

The NFL now has a new national anthem policy, allowing players to remain in the locker room if they prefer.

Despite this, kneeling or sitting leads to team fines, with the option to fine the individual players or personnel for the infraction.

This motion was passed with a unanimous vote, but the owner of the San Francisco 49ers abstained from voting.

Theodore Roosevelt once referred to the office of Presidency as a “bully pulpit”; the perfect platform from which to influence the opinions of the public.

Sportsmen and women too have heightened stature – though not elevated to the same extent – so it is vital that sports play a role in politics and in challenging the political elite. It is only right that they should be allowed to use their celebrity status to pursue what they believe to be just goals, spreading awareness of modern day tragedies. In fact, they should be heralded for doing so at their own financial risk. As Kaepernick’s subsequent advert with Nike stated:

‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’.

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Luke Saward

May 2021
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