“ESPN is about sports. ESPN is not a political organization.” — ESPN president John Skipper
This has led to me seeing variations of the phrase “politics has no place in sports” plastered all over social media.
If only this were true.
In 2005, the United States Congress held hearings about doping in baseball. Top players testified. Jose Canseco famously admitted to using steroids in the past. Mark McGwire, feeling as though he’d be vilified either way, famously said “I’m not here to talk about the past.”
In 1972 at the Munich Olympics, 11 Israeli athletes and a German police officer were killed by a secular Palestinian terrorist group. They were aided by German neo-Nazis.
In 2015, a movie titled Concussion was made based on a 2009 GQ exposeabout the NFL trying to suppress a forensic pathologist’s research on brain degeneration due to chronic trauma that football players sustain.
In 1991, the Baseball Hall of Fame voted Pete Rose to be permanently ineligible for induction, after he agreed in 1989 to a permanent ineligibility from baseball due to betting on games while he was a player and manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Rose is the all-time MLB leader in hits, games played, at-bats, and singles.
In 2017, TV deals kick in for the Big Ten conference from which athletic departments will reportedly get payouts of $43 million in 2017–2018. Most schools the U.S. don’t profit from athletics and siphon off money from academic budgets to keep pace. College athletes, even at schools that doprofit, are not paid for their work.
In 1980, the United States, along with 64 other nations, boycotted the Olympics in Moscow, due to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan.
In 1968, two American runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the Olympic medal podium during the national anthem. The raised fist was a symbol first used by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1917, and it was used as a black power salute in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 2017, prominent NFL and MLB owners and other sports-related corporations donated millions of dollars to fund Donald Trump’s inauguration.
In 1936, when Berlin hosted the Olympics, they took down anti-Jewish propaganda and tried to soften their image. Many journalists reported positively about the Olympics, and scholars say this dulled a lot of the opposition to Adolf Hitler.
In 2006, in order to secure the bid for hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, it is alleged that the Russian mafia threatened the leader of the Salzburg campaign, its biggest competitor. The 2014 Winter Olympics were held in Sochi, Russia — a city with mild winters, average highs around 50 degrees F. The games had numerous controversies.
In 1951, the University of San Francisco Dons had one of the best seasons in college football history. They were invited to a Bowl game (back when that meant something), but refused because it required their two black players to not attend.
In 2015, the U.S. indicted 14 people connected to an investigation into corruption within FIFA and affiliates, including charges of wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering. Five other countries also opened criminal investigations into top FIFA officials.
In 1918, to foster patriotism during WWI, the national anthem was played during the seventh-inning stretch at the World Series. This happened again regularly during WWII. After WWII it became the norm at baseball games and spread to other sports.
In 1995, the trial of O.J. Simpson captivated a nation. It provided the subject for the 2016 highly-acclaimed documentary, O.J.: Made in America, which dealt with the “nexus of race, celebrity and sports” in the U.S.
I love sports.
There is something profoundly human about pushing your body and your mental fortitude to extreme limits in order to compete against other people, against world records, for winning streaks, for personal bests, for glory, or maybe not to compete at all but just to be there playing a game you love.
There is a blind student athlete on USC’s football team, who played in his first collegiate game this September, snapping the ball on an extra point. Anthony Robles was a college wrestler at Arizona State who went 36–0 in his 2010–2011 season — in spite of being born with only one leg. Japan’s women’s national soccer team won the 2011 World Cup, months after the country was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami that killed 15,000 people. After one of their matches, their coach said, “We are still recovering from the disaster. There were so many victims in the area which was devastated. Even little things like a win can give people courage and hope.”
And that sums up why sports are still worth it.
I will never forget watching Kerry Wood get 20 strikeouts in a game in 1998 or Kerri Strug vaulting on a sprained ankle at the 1996 Olympics or Scottie Pippen holding up Michael Jordan during Jordan’s infamous 1997 “flu game” or Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal playing for almost six hours in the 2012 Australian Open final or Jim Valvano saying, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” In the month of March, my life revolves around a game invented in 1891 in a gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts, with a soccer ball and a couple peach baskets.
As inspiring as athletics can be, the ideals of purity and sportsmanship and fairness often seem absent.
Look into any professional sport and there is probably a scandal — doping, cheating, you name it. Much of this comes down to money. More winning means more corporate sponsorship. FIFA and the IOC are probably two of the most corrupt institutions in the world.
Sports aren’t apolitical because sports are an industry — sports medicine, sports goods, sports tourism, sports training, fantasy sports, sports broadcasting.
Economics and politics are inextricably bound.
ESPN, Inc. is owned by the Walt Disney Company (in 2016, their total assets were worth $92 billion) and the Hearst Corporation (a multi-billion dollar mass media and business information conglomerate). Incidentally, William Randolph Hearst built his newspaper popularity on yellow journalism and twice served as a U.S. Congressman.
The team owners of major team sports in the world are insanely wealthy. There are now 81 sports teams around the world worth over $1 billion. In 2016, the highest paid public employee in 39 states was a college basketball or football coach. Advertising during the Super Bowl cost $4.5 million in 2015. These massive amounts of money are always political. Mass media is a special-interest group that lobbies Congress, most recently threatening net neutrality, and media monopolies are dangerous to the spread of free information, including sports broadcasts.
If you still love sports like I do, you have to find a balance where you can still enjoy a sport and recognize its corruption, the way it’s driven by money, and the way players are expected to represent companies and brands and be public figures.
Race has always been an issue in sports — from apartheid and the International Rugby Union to racist mascots to “Caucasian only” golf courses.
It’s not talked about as much, but class has always been an issue in sports, too. There is a reason why the most popular sport in the world is one that only requires a ball and open space.
The bottom line is that athletes are public figures with identities that are politicized.
Sports are part of public life, the domain of the political.
Sports are part of the economy.
Sports are political.
(Ironically, there is an article titled “If you thought sports were ever separate from politics, think again” on ESPN.com.)
Originally posted on medium.com.