Politicized sports, a knife’s edge – part 1

Photo by Keith Allison. KA Sports Photos

Sports – and many other popular forms of entertainment – are increasingly political.  For example, a major headline from the first NFL weekend concerned pre-game player demonstrations – did players and coaches stand or kneel during “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – often referred to as the Black national anthem, and the national anthem.  This came several days after the season opener in Kansas City, where a national audience witnessed fans booing the Chiefs and Texans during a pre-game display of unity.

And herein lies a long-standing dilemma for athletes and the sports industry.  The widespread popularity of sports produces celebrity, which in turn can powerfully shape political affairs.  Celebrity offers reach and influence – it affords athletes and sports leagues real opportunities to benefit countless individuals and communities across the nation.  Athletes can shine a bright light on social injustices and build momentum for larger political movements.

And let me be clear, this is a good thing.  It is selfish thinking to assume athletes should be exclusively focused on the field.  Their activism has advanced positive societal changes that may never have occurred otherwise.    

For instance, athletes were a major part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s – notably Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhamad Ali.  For their extraordinary efforts, all four received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian award bestowed in the United States.  Likewise tennis star Arthur Ashe waged a determined fight against inequality throughout his life including apartheid in South Africa.  President Barack Obama listed Ali and Ashe as his most admired sports figures. 

Yet, let’s also be mindful that protests are often construed as political – despite the significance of their causes.  Protesters object to the status quo and seek change.  This raises opposition.  Sports figures and sports leagues become associated with political conflict, which generally does not sell tickets. 

Sports are big business in the United States.  An athlete’s celebrity depends on the popularity of their sport and the willingness of people to pay for sports entertainment.  For many fans, an evening at the ballpark or stadium offers an escape from the daily grind, and that includes politics.  Obviously, sports fans turn to ESPN, not CNN, Fox Sports, not Fox News.   

The real tensions arise when the athlete is not merely political but strongly partisan.  If the athlete’s politics disagrees with the sport’s fan base, supporters may turn away or show disapproval.[1]  Backlash highlights the perils of politicization.  Indeed, being a catalyst of social change is demanding and can be costly to the athlete and the sport.     

Cost to the athlete

Winners of the 1968 gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village after their protests during the medal ceremony.  The pair stepped onto the podium shoeless, wearing black socks and gloves, bowed their heads and raised their fists to express Black unity and protest racial inequality.  They returned home to death threats and for years struggled to make a living. 

Muhammad Ali’s objections to the Vietnam War and refusal to serve in the military cost him his title and nearly 4 years in the prime of his boxing career.   More recently, Colin Kaepernick paid a similar price for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality – he has yet to return to the league.[2]    Still others lost endorsements for demonstrations, were suspended, and endured personal tragedy.                      

Cost to the Sport

The debate over whether Kaepernick’s protests impacted NFL TV ratings remains lively and unsettled.  An October 2016 opinion poll showed a significant number of Americans (32%) were less likely to watch an NFL game because of the growing number of player protests.  Just 13% said they would be more likely to watch because of the protests.   

After an extended dip, NFL ratings rebounded last season.  The NFL seemed to have recovered and the business of football looked bright.  A TV sports executive summed up the feelings of many: “If the conversation around football is primarily about the game, then we’re probably winning.” 

However, 2020 may go down as the most political year in sports history.  This summer organized walkouts and postponed games rippled across several leagues including the NBA, WNBA, MLS, MLB, and NHL.  It was not a single athlete – a player of immense celebrity that walked out, but entire teams and leagues.      

Establishment forces like owners, commissioners, leagues, and some media outlets were quick to support players, accommodating demands both symbolically – placement of Black Lives Matter on basketball courts, names of police victims on uniforms, and substantively – leagues pledging millions to combat systemic racism and promote Black American’s political participation.

But sports fans reacted.  In a recent Harris poll, 39% of fans said they were watching fewer NBA games.  The key reason, politics.  Of ten options provided, “The league has become to political” was the clear choice among sport fans – 38%.   Second, “Boring without fans” at 28%, and third another political issue, the “NBA’s association with China” 19%. 

Top reasons sports fans watching fewer NBA games – 2/3 of sample identified as sports fans. 

Top 3 Reasons% of sports fans
The league has become to political38
Boring without fans28
NBA’s association with China19

In addition, the NBA is now more partisan than other sports.  Forty eight percent of Democrats actively follow the NBA, compared to only 34% of Republicans.  The 14-point gap is the largest for any sport – for example, 54% of Democrats actively follow football compared to 51% of Republicans.[3]                

It’s not clear whether on-field demonstrations and league initiatives will impact the NFL.  We do know Kaepernick was not impressed, calling the NFL’s social justice initiatives “propaganda”.  He was not alone as others expressed similar doubts about the sincerity of NFL efforts. 

Knife’s edge

Politics requires balance, a relentless tight-roping between deep-seated principles and pragmatic accommodation.  There is no direct, easy path forward.  Step one way, fans disapprove, step the other, players and team’s object.   

Sports leagues must balance the needs of players, fans, and financial interests while pursuing the completion of a successful season – all amid a pandemic.  The players must weigh the potential gains from protesting and the associated risks that may include significant personal and economic costs.  An athlete’s political convictions are constantly tested.     

Similarly, a politicized environment compels teams to adjust and realize a workable equilibrium.  Political differences may reach the locker room, coaching staff, and front office.  Based on their politics, some players will be blackballed and replaced by those deemed compatible with the prevailing climate.  Without question, Kaepernick was frozen out of the League for his protests –  not his playing ability.             

Politics does that.  It propagates and impacts players, teams, and leagues in unanticipated ways.  We cannot be certain of the outcome.  However, we can be certain that politicians will instinctively exploit divisions across sports and within them. 


[1]   This is not always the case.  NASCAR’s recent action of prohibiting confederate flags and showing support for Black Lives Matters did not appear to impact fans desires to watch or attend races.

[2]   While effectively ending his career, kneeling during the national anthem is now widespread and for that reason Kaepernick’s legacy lives on.  

[3]   The Harris data agree with a FiveThirtyEight poll that showed of the four major sports, Football, Baseball, Hockey and Basketball, Basketball leans considerably more Left with the highest share of fans identifying as Democrat 60%.  Football was second at 50% Democrat, Baseball 44%, then Hockey at 38%.     

10 thoughts on “Politicized sports, a knife’s edge – part 1

  1. Mark a great discussion of the social impact of sports. I liked that section where u moved from the initial section on recent effort to support social justice issues then looking at consequences of politicizing sports. It would be interesting to investigate the impact of long term support vs opposition to social justice advocacy. In other ward are the lakers losing long term fans because of LaBron’ advocacy?

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    1. Thanks, yes that would be an excellent study. I suspect that at least for the NBA, LeBron’s activity aligns reasonably well with base preferences — recall the fan base is Left of center – and the NBA sports media generally support the player’s protests. However, data from some of the opinion surveys – as noted in the blog, suggest the possibility that strong and persistent political actions could alienate some NBA supporters — particularly moderate to Right of center people that are occasional fans. That is, many people may still watch the home town team perform but perhaps be less likely to watch games/playoffs generally.

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  2. This post was very thought provoking. It reminded me of several years ago I read an article by an ethicist who was asked about whether someone should stop watching football because of the toll that it takes on the players’ health. The ethicist said that yes, concerns over CTE should compel people to stop watching football. In the NFL, it seems like we reconcile our misgiving with player health by that fact that they are well compensated. Nonetheless, ESPN’s Michelle Beadle lost her job over her stance on the NFL and CTE (there were also talks about her lack of on air charisma with her cohost). With the NCAA, there is the dilemma that the student-athletes designation is a front to protect a billion-dollar sports enterprise from workers’ compensation and long-term legal liability obligations for university athletic departments (see Branch’s article in the Atlantic – https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/10/the-shame-of-college-sports/308643/ ). I suppose what I am getting at is that, like you said, politics has always hovered around sports. And if it is not within the realm of electoral politics, it certainly has been within some policy niche (CTE, labor obligations, amateurism) that matters a lot to the athletes and their employers.

    I have recently seen my own sports consumption decrease as well. But it is not because Lebron’s policy positions or because Drew Brees is a dummy. It’s because I watch sports as my escape from the grind of the news. WIth a 4.4 load, it seems like all I do some days is reflect and talk about the implications of what some pol said online and in class. I watch sports to get away from that. When COVID took away the Tourney in March, and the NBA season as we know it, it was like the real world collided with the escape of sports. Now that sports are back, I’d think it was a wonderful time – with playoffs happening in the NHL, WNBA, and NBA – all while having the NFL on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday (as a Kansas grad I don’t count NCAA football. It can rot in hell for all I care.). But I find that as I tune in and see the empty seats and simulated crowd noises, I am reminded that COVID is still harming thousands of people and claiming American lives. In the words of Dan Le Batard, “we don’t deserve sports.”

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    1. I am just finishing up the second part of Politicized sports and found your comments timely and compelling. In fact, you make a strong case that part of the negativity imposed on sports does not derive solely from sports activism but also general anxiety surrounding Covid-19. I agree. The pandemic undermines the “escape” that sports offers and brings us quickly back to reality — though protests may play that same role. And, I also agree that we have seemed to overcome our concerns about CTE and exploitation of college athletes. Before the pandemic, football and college sports generally enjoyed widespread public support and commercial backing. We did not stop watching. Perhaps that is the power of sports. It takes a lot to break the habit, to turn it off, and to pursue other entertainment. In this regard, it may take much more than a pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests to truly change American’s sports watching habits. Thanks for your comments Alex!

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  3. Interesting blogs on your site recently. I’m reticent to comment based on the striking disregard and vitriol I feel some elite athletes and entertainers in general, seem to have for the systems (imperfect as they may be) that have given them financial comfort and a platform to pontificate from. Everyone is entitled to have an opinion in this country. That’s one of the cornerstones to a society that really has no historical equal in terms of influence, affluence and global power. There is no doubt that inequities exist and that we should stive as a society to be better humans. There is also no doubt that, only those steeped in comparative prosperity, lack the ability to view themselves through a wider lens. Our country seems to be astride an Apocalyptic horse of self-loathing. And, influencers like sports personalities, actors and politicians aggregate around emotionally charged contentions, feeding oxygen and fuel to fires that consume everything around them and look to disintegrate the very constructs that allow them their current freedoms. The collective of people that believe you must agree with them or face “cancellation” consequences is going larger every day. Each using the bull horn or social media to give an ever increasing decibel level to a vocal minority.

    I, for one, do not what to watch any game that condemns or demonstrates for a political position or social agenda. Some would say that playing the National Anthem at all is doing just that. I would respond that is simply a societal construct that benefits those living in our country. We should be happy that we live in the United States. We should look to the rest of the world and understand our elevated stature in comparison and be proud of it. Not blind to its problems. Not ignorant of its historical or current limitations and shames. But, also not willing to tear down the entire system that allows us the inalienable rights enumerated by the founders.

    Sports is an entertainment business. Perhaps the business has calculated that they will gain viewership by taking controversial stances on subjects leaning in the direction of its current congregation. Perhaps polarization in general is the new, preferred method of for doing most anything. It certainly garners the most attention.

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    1. Jim, thanks for your thoughtful comments. After writing this post, and another one to be published tomorrow, I recognize that literally millions of people feel similarly. The percentage of people that say politics is the main reason they watch less sports is substantial and in fact represents a worrisome number for sports leagues. Indeed, it was a mere 2 decades ago that all sports leagues and sports figures were literally wrapped in the flag, strongly unified behind the country after 9/11. Every political figure wore a flag pin and every sports league proudly displayed its support for the military and the country generally. How quickly times change!

      Among several compelling thoughts, your last one about sports as a business struck me as especially important. Perhaps the leagues have already made the fundamental calculation that strongly expressed political views — by players and others — are now part of the marketing plan and will serve them well. Politics is a means to capture and hold a target market. The NBA will likely never have as large a fan base as the NFL, and neither will the WNBA. But their much smaller fan bases are committed and politically homogenous. Pre-game protests deepen NBA and WNBA fan support…it does not alienate them. In these times, fans may even demand it. Much like the “narrow casting” by the cable news channels (CNN, MSNBC, FOX), the various sports leagues may begin to fall into their ideological lanes and seek to maximize profit from a much smaller but highly committed base of supporters. Ironically, that was President’s Trump path to the White House. In our highly politicized environment, a broad base of support is not necessary — and social media makes it virtually impossible. Rather, a deep and loud base can prove just as effective. This may now be true in sports. Yes, owners of the various teams may have already grasped the benefits of this type of business strategy.

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      1. I am in agreement with your reply, but somewhat deflated by the commentary it insinuates about our ability as a nation to move into the future. It’s as if some wish to “die on the hill” of their own tribe’s narrow virtue position. It strikes me that we either come together because of common foes, or we create them out of whole cloth, and paint them with the faces of our neighbors.

        Acknowledging our personal and historical shortcomings, then taking personal responsibility for our present and our future, is the way forward. History must truly teach us, or be relegated to continued repetition.

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      2. Hey Jim,
        Had not considered the implication for national cohesion that comes from narrowcasting and fragmentation of sport markets. I am thinking structurally here and was not implying where this may go at the individual level. Not certain it has to be a negative. For example, markets often fragment and broader monopolies give way to niche segments that seem to serve narrower interests well. Inside those narrow interests, virtue signaling and in-group language develops that can, overtime, create major tension with other interests/groups — so that is the negative. But, some of these in-group markets will simply fade as well. Also, as you point out, history is a great teacher. Just across the 20th century, we had two world wars, great depression, the cold war, etc. All events that brought people in our nation closer together. In those contexts, the fragmentation and tribal tendencies decay and stronger collective efforts replace them. Then, ironically, people begin to worry about nationalistic tendencies. I do not wish for Wars or Depressions but events are frequent that draw the nation together. One more item: I do think the late 60s early 70s were a much more difficult time, and far more likely to create lasting fissures than today. Nearly every major American city experienced violent civil unrest, among other things. I do hope we learn, and history does not repeat itself.

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      3. Perhaps I’m in a negatively contemplative mood today. Maybe a neat Irish whiskey is necessary to modulate. Always expect the best, but prepare for the worst.

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