I love sports. I might not scream it—I weigh 122 pounds and recorded a total of one hit over four years of high school baseball (I was a pitcher, okay?)—but it’s true. MLB is my favorite, but I’m not picky. Show me any configuration of a few dozen oversized adults playing with a ball for millions of dollars, and I’m in. And yet, spoiled for sports as I’ve been this year, I’ve found it difficult to reconcile my passion for the drama, strategy, and pure beauty of peak athletic competition with the backwardness of the commercial institutions underlying that competition.
American professional sports organizations have always lagged behind social movements—and, indeed, they have frequently been an obstacle to progressive reforms. For the first century of organized baseball’s existence, the “reserve clause” prevented free agency, effectively granting owners a monopoly on players’ labor (this famously led to the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series in exchange for bribes because they were so poorly paid). In Flood v. Kuhn (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reserve clause, ruling that St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood could be traded against his will with no recourse. In 1967, Muhammad Ali was suspended from boxing and stripped of his title after refusing to be drafted to Vietnam. “Shoot them for what?” he said. “They never called me n—–, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.” Racist team names, mascots, and chants are an ongoing embarrassment at every level of every game. The list goes on.
I wasn’t surprised, then, by the shallow, face-saving public responses of every major sports league (with, perhaps, the exception of the NBA) to recent calls to end police violence. I wasn’t surprised when the announcers of my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox (the last franchise in MLB to integrate and one whose supporters routinely shout racial slurs from the stands at visiting outfielders), spent several minutes praising players’ “display of unity” of sitting out a game in protest without once mentioning what prompted that display. And when I visited ESPN’s Instagram page and viewed posts about bare-minimum measures such as allowing athletes to wear “BLM” patches on their uniforms, I wasn’t surprised to read vile, racist comments from fans who were invariably white. “Why are u supporting criminals and drug dealers.” “Say their WHITE names.” And, on a post about Haitian-Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, who won the US Open while wearing face masks bearing the names of Black Americans murdered by cops: “Y’all notice it’s always the half breeds that try too hard.”
What I did find surprising—or at least most disheartening—were the many calls for peace, for a truce in the world of athletics. I’ll call it the ‘apolitical plea.’
On that same post about Osaka, a commenter replies: “NOBODY CARES. STOP FORCING POLITICS DOWN OUR THROATS.”
On a graphic pointing out that the recent NBA playoff strike in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake took place exactly four years after then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the national anthem: “Let’s boycott ESPN. Keep politics out of sports.”
On a slideshow highlighting athletes’ reactions to the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Not sure why this is a sports story. #stayinyourlane.”
Comments like these reflect a vision of sports as a sort of safe haven, a bubble in which the action on the field is entirely sealed off from the pressing issues of society. But this vision is a myth—one that sports’ corporate masters work hard to maintain. A recent poll found that declining basketball viewership can be largely attributed to a sentiment that “the league has become too political.” Following its strike, President Trump called the NBA a “political organization.” Whereas 76% of Black sports fans believe athletes should use their in-game platform to speak out about racial injustice, only a minority of white ones feel the same.
“Political commitments are evidenced in our daily behavior,” remarked Imani Perry, Princeton’s Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies, during a panel hosted by the Undergraduate Student Government on August 25. Perry was responding to a question about the role of Black voters in the 2020 United States presidential election, but her words carry meaning well beyond that context and certainly apply to sports.
Sports are not a bubble. If anything (ninth-grade biology, don’t fail me now!), they’re more like a cell. Hear me out. The American sports cell has a semipermeable membrane, a filter that allows passage of non-sports material that is exclusively uncontroversial. We applaud soldiers as they throw out the first pitch. We buy raffle tickets to support cancer research. We participate in team-sponsored food drives. These actions are decidedly political. They involve us asserting our values, dedicating our time and money to causes we deem important. But the entire process surrounding them is designed to wall off contention: sure, we can honor veterans, but we definitely can’t talk about the war they fought in or whether we were lied to in order to justify it. We’re fed our civic engagement in small, sugary doses and in exchange we agree to the illusion that sports are wholesome and communitarian. In doing so, we bolster the public image of incredibly profitable and usually exploitative businesses. Anodyne politics—but politics all the same—allow clubs to portray their relationships with fans as a partnership for good rather than an exchange of commodities. We keep coming back, and, in turn, we increase the bottom lines of overwhelmingly white, right-wing, tax-avoiding owners and executives.
This insulated cycle of symbiotic back-patting and pocket-fattening works really well. We all know that cancer is worth defeating and that hungry people deserve to eat—and, hey, did you see that touchdown pass?! Each year’s ratings and revenues eclipse the last’s. Republicans buy sneakers, too.
But every now and then, something sneaks through the American sports membrane and disrupts the delicate equilibrium of artificial, bite-sized politics. In the fraught history of sports in the United States, this “something” has almost invariably involved race.
The Olympics, that progenitor of all organized athletic competition, began as a means for rival Greek ethnic polities to vie for cultural and political dominance. Hitler used the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to advertise the appeal of the Aryan nation (a narrative famously undermined by Black American track and field star Jesse Owens). During the Cold War, the Games became a proving ground for American and Soviet superiority. But in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two Black American Olympic sprinting medalists, were expelled from the event after raising the Black Power fist while standing shoeless on the podium. Said Smith, “If I win, I am American, not a Black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro.” International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, who voiced no objection to German athletes raising the Nazi salute in 1936, justified his decision to dismiss the two runners with the apolitical plea: “We actively combat the introduction of politics into the Olympic movement.”
When Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, he faced racism in all its traditional forms: verbal abuse from fans, opposing managers, and teammates; physical harm as players tried to drag their spikes on his ankles; and exclusion as every team other than the Dodgers (the one that signed him) voted that he and all other Black players should be barred from the major leagues. But Robinson also faced the apolitical plea. Frank Young, a contemporary journalist for the Black-owned Chicago Defender, wrote, “[Some observers], especially those in the South, although there are some in the North who concur, are of the opinion that the time is not ripe for the experiment.”
In 2020, the myth of sports as a refuge from struggles for racial justice is threatened by demands for police accountability. And now, as before, the time-honored defense mechanism of the apolitical plea kicks in. The actors and the theater have changed, but the script is the same. Instead of sharing their disgust with the person next to them in the Jim Crow car, peddlers of the plea take to Instagram.
Vince Williams, a Black linebacker for my hometown Steelers, sums it up: “Sometimes people say sports should stay out of politics, politics should stay out of sports. If you look back in history, that has never been the case.”
The apolitical plea is understandable. I, too, would love a Sunday sanctuary, a world of pigskins and pitches, home runs and holes-in-one into which I could escape, an oasis truly free of inequality and strife. But that place simply doesn’t exist. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. articulates the point more eloquently and succinctly than I ever could: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Turning a blind eye or resorting to make-believe won’t work. We have to meet America’s cruelties head-on and commit to solutions that are tangible, meaningful, and, for many sports fans, highly uncomfortable.
Author’s note: Since submitting this piece, a Kentucky grand jury charged just one officer involved in the murder of Breonna Taylor with “wanton endangerment.” As Black athletes expressed their outrage and sadness, ESPN Instagram comment sections were flooded, as usual, with both racist polemics and the apolitical plea.