What Politics Really Mean in Sports

Jackie Robinson, famous Civil Rights activist and baseball player, at the plate in a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey
Jackie Robinson, famous Civil Rights activist and baseball player, at the plate in a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey
Courtesy by jackierobinson.com

On August 26, 2016, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the National Anthem of a preseason football game in protest of police brutality in America.

On August 26, 2020, the entire Milwaukee Bucks team went on strike and sat out during the NBA playoffs for the same reason.

The outcomes?

For Kaepernick, it left his career in shambles. It was multiple NFL executives labeling him as a “distraction” or an “embarrassment” to the sport. He didn’t return to the sport the following year. For the Milwaukee Bucks, it was a chain reaction. The rest of the NBA games all postponed soon after to show their support in the Bucks’ decision.

The bottom line is, these professional athletes are public influencers, since they garner some of the largest television and social media audiences in America, specifically for young people. The NFL is amongst the most watched sporting events by people of all ages.

Another example you could think of is LeBron James — one of the most respected and greatest athletes of this generation being told to “shut up and dribble” after bringing politics into sports.

This begs a bigger question: are these public statements and demonstrations just politics or is it something bigger than that?

In recent times, there have been many mixed reactions to decisions made by professional athletes or organizations. From people opposing an NFL team for visiting the President at the White House after winning the Super Bowl to people refusing to watch the NBA because they have the phrase “Black Lives Matter” written across the floor.

Those two examples are not political. They are just a part of the beauty of sports. One includes a tradition. The other includes a movement. The negative connotations surrounding them are either rooted in a non-understanding of what politics have done for sports or the thought of sports as an aloof concept.

So let’s get into what politics in sports history has meant.

Throughout history, sports have been a sort of safe haven from the world of politics to most people. But to believe that politics are not an important aspect of the sporting world is completely naive. The two can co-exist; they always have and always will.

Let me flashback a few centuries to the United States during the 1820's. Politics and sports had become so closely intertwined that Americans began referring to elections as “races”. The men were known to bet on elections and fight at the polls, and only white men were permitted to vote in America at this time. This led to politics being called the “sport for grown children”.

And to be fair, the sports were limited to pretty much only horse racing.

For a while, sports were used in politics to make them look more ‘fun’. A main purpose was to help provide incentive to voters. Politics adapted a competitive-feel in order to get people excited. Americans ate it up and most likely thought that politics and sports would be forevermore.

That is, until after the Civil War ended in 1865. When many of America’s past ideologies came to a standstill. This included the relationship between sports and politics.

Black Americans entered the sporting world and started gaining traction among fan bases. You had prominent and successful all Black American baseball teams, like the Philadelphia Pythians founded in 1865. Jockeys like Jimmy Winkfield and Jimmy Lee made a splash in the sport of horse racing, interrupting the predominantly white sport in the early 1900's.

All of a sudden, the politicization of sports had a whole new aura. For many White Americans, sports were no longer an amusing way to stir up votes once it promised to mobilize those who had different heritages.

As more and more non-white voters began voting amid changes in the 20th century, legislation began removing some of the once-fun parts of the elections. They outlawed gambling, alcohol sales near polls, and began implementing more intense voter registration policies. It’s safe to say politics and sports had now become enemies.

This was the dawn of sobering up politics.

It had been almost 60 years of segregated baseball before Jackie Robinson hit the scene.

Robinson didn’t just change the sport of baseball. He changed the country. And he did this because he brought new politics into the sport.

These new politics have since become the normality of today’s game.

He is arguably the most influential athlete of all time. By breaking the MLB’s color barrier in 1947, he received one of the most racially enduring careers as a Brooklyn Dodger. He rose to the occasion by winning Rookie of the Year and going on to play in six World Series.

He did all of this while also being a forefather to the Civil Rights Movement in America, by constantly speaking out against racial discrimination and calling on baseball’s influence to help desegregate cities and recruit more Black athletes.

By pushing the MLB to use its mass influence to help resolve many of the racial disparities, Robinson did something that is looked back on as heroic and timeless.

He helped pave a path for what sports have become today, perfect or not.

It caused traction in sports that led to the great Muhammad Ali coming to dominance in the boxing scene, another activist who received plenty of backlash during his career. It completely changed the game of basketball whose greatest players, names like Bill Russell and Michael Jordan, were able to thankfully participate and did so by dominating the game. It changed the game of golf, with players like Charlie Sifford, who broke boundaries, long before Tiger Woods.

If you’re able to call Jackie Robinson brave for being the front runner of a bigger movement than himself, you should be able to call Colin Kaepernick brave for doing the same.

Sure. They aren’t the same person and no one can compare to Jackie Robinson. But the outcome for both is the desire to create change and fight the injustices against Black Americans.

The idea of politics have become such a divisive part of society that people have tried to condemn them from sports, when in reality they have been a part of some of the most important moments in sports history.

I want you to think about politics as a beautiful part of sports rather than an ugly one. I want you to think of it as something that can open doors rather than close them for players. Something that differentiates the player from the game, in a good way.

We’re all humans trying to enjoy either playing, watching, or listening to our favorite sports. And what good is it if we begin to stop backing players for something they believe in?

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