Boiling Point: The Return of Political Sport Stars

With Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest garnering so much interest in the US, Martin Healy discusses how politics have returned to US sports.[br]RIGHT now, more so than any time in the last twenty years, US politics has reached a preverbal boiling point. Certainly race issues and politics – from the US election, to gun ownership to immigration – have mixed with American popular culture in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s.Sports are no different. Sport stars are inherently risk-averse creatures; any kind of controversial or polarising statement could be hazardous to their place in a team, or affect their sponsorships or bottom line. The last time sports, race, and politics became completely intertwined, at least in the US, was during the 1960s through the anti-war protests of Muhammad Ali and the fists raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.The spirit of rebellion has slowly seeped away through the decades. Black sport stars are often pressured to talk about race, but starting with OJ Simpson in the 1970s and mastered by Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan in the 1990s, American athletes began to completely avoid anything connected to politics and race issues. With the sheer amount of money and commercial interests in modern sport, there is rarely room for athletes to have their say about politics, especially if it was against white, conservative America.Suddenly, however, things have begun to shift. The Black Lives Matter movement has picked up a lot of steam since 2014, with the mainstream outpouring of support for police victims such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Alton Sterling. During a pre-season game on August 24th, San Francisco 49er’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the pre-game rendition of the US national anthem.
“Sport stars are inherently risk-averse creatures; any kind of controversial or polarising statement could be hazardous…”
Kaepernick’s action sparked outrage across the nation – his actions were described as being disrespectful to the sacrifices of the US armed forces. Despite this outrage, Kaepernick received a huge amount of support from fellow athletes: eleven players kneeled during the anthem on the first week of the NFL season.Support has continued for Kaepernick ever since, and continues to add to the fusion of sports and US politics over the last three to four years. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving wore ‘I Can’t Breathe’ t-shirts in support of Eric Garner, who was killed via an illegal choking technique utilised by a NYPD officer, in 2014. This past July saw New York Liberty players wear Black Lives Matter shirts in the warm-up before a WNBA game.It speaks to how important issues like police brutality are for the black community if they are able to burst into the über-capitalist world of sport. LeBron James, who is the biggest name in contemporary US sport, has supported Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin – Michael Jordan would have never ventured into this kind of hazardous territory. Even with his political leanings, James still remains the commercial king of the NBA – he is still accepted by conservative, corporate America.Politics and sports have always mixed – despite the insistence of commercial interests and partners. Where else is there a platform for young African-American or Latino or Asian -- often working-class -- people to stand up and have people listen to what they have to say? Athletes don’t have to speak about race or politics – certainly not – but there are few other avenues for working class people of colour to have their life experiences listened to on a national stage.
“There are few other avenues for working class people of colour to have their life experiences listened to…”
There is a litany of stories about athletes living the fabled “American dream” and moving from squalor to riches. Surely these men and women, who have lived a life dealing with police brutality and racial discrimination, deserve to have their first-hand experiences be heard?The passing of Muhammad Ali saw a sea of eulogies in his honour. Sports fan and people worldwide adore Ali’s charisma, but political involvement played a huge role in his incredible appeal. While Ali knocking out Sonny Liston is an iconic image, Ali’s anti-war remark that “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” is just as iconic.So much of what makes Ali’s legacy so endearing was his anti-establishment ideals. He was the champion of the world, but always quick to discuss the struggles of the African-American. It is almost ironic to see conservative figures remark on his trailblazing legacy after he passed – if a young Ali existed in 2016, conservative politicians would despise him.Politically aware sport superstars can rouse so much hatred, but they have an incredible platform to discuss what happens in their community; in their country. Even if Tom Brady wishes to publicly endorse Trump, it is perfectly his right to do so, just like it’s James McClean’s right to decline to wear a commemorative poppy if he pleases.The colour of an athlete’s skin doesn’t mean they have to fly the preverbal political flag, but it is heartening to see the return of important, real-life social issues to sport. Sport does not happen in a vacuum - athletes are real humans who have given so much to get where they are. Since so much airtime is given to their athletic prowess, it is only right they get to speak their minds.