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. 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. 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 political||38|
|Boring without fans||28|
|NBA’s association with China||19|
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.
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.
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.
 While effectively ending his career, kneeling during the national anthem is now widespread and for that reason Kaepernick’s legacy lives on.
 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%.