OPINION: Don’t separate professional sports and politics

NBA basketball players wearing "Black Lives Matter" shirts kneel on the court and raise their fists.
Phillip Kong PO ’24 argues that fans should not depoliticize professional sports as it slows down social and political change. (Courtesy: Ashley Landis via Getty Images)

When someone turns on the TV on a Sunday afternoon to watch football, they usually want to see exciting plays from their favorite players and good results for their team, not be immersed in complex discussions about politics. I share this sentiment and value the entertainment offered by professional sports and their unique ability to provide people with a sense of identity

However, it is important as fans to recognize the political aspect of professional sports — the depoliticization of professional sports denies the inherently political identity and history of most professional sport leagues in North America, preventing their existing flaws and problems from being addressed and fixed.

With recent surges of social and political activism regarding racism against Black people in North America, many professional sports leagues such as the NFL, NBA, WNBA and NWSL have embraced activism. 

There have also been cases of individual players’ speaking out about race and discrimination. The problematic trend does not lie in the backlash or support that these political gestures have received but rather in the responses that aim to separate professional sports and politics.

A recent example is NBA player Kyrie Irving’s comment about changing the logo of the NBA, currently a silhouette of Jerry West, a former white player, to the late Kobe Bryant, a former Black player, because “Black kings built this league.” 

While the controversial statement by Irving has received both criticism from journalists and support from the general public, the problematic trend lies in the overwhelming response from fans in the comments of the aforementioned tweet and Irving’s Instagram post who argue that Bryant should be recognized for his accomplishments in the NBA and not for his race, essentially denying the political side of changing the logo.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in former NBA player Dwyane Wade’s tweet congratulating player James Harden on being much happier playing for a new team after a trade. There are many replies that criticize Wade’s incorporation of racial identity into his message, such as “What difference does it make if he’s Black or white?”

But one cannot simply detach sports from politics, because the histories and identities of professional sports leagues are inherently political.

The MLB excluded Black players from play until 1947. The demographic of NBA players has been roughly 75 percent people of color for many years, the overwhelming majority being Black, but only 24 percent of vice presidents and ten  general managers — the team executives responsible for managing and acquiring players — are peo as of the 2019-2020 season. There are also only four NBA team owners who are people of color.

In 2012, not a single woman worked as some sort of coach in the Big Four sports leagues — the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL — in which individual teams employ anywhere from four to 18 coaches. Today, there are only six female assistant coaches in the NBA, while the 30-team league employs three to 10 assistant coaches per team. There are no permanent female head coaches. Historically and presently, the vast misrepresentation of individuals with diverse backgrounds reflects an unequal power balance in professional sports.

If we as fans refuse to recognize the political nature of professional sports leagues, the issues that currently plague those organizations will not be fixed. If we do not expect athletes and other members of the organizations to voice their opinions on political issues that also manifest themselves in athletics, professional sports will always be a fragment of society that lags behind in progress. 

One may have concerns about activism from prominent athletes, as their messages can be diluted because, generally, they come from social media or short interviews. They can also potentially be hypocritical, as these athletes often are in a position of privilege, being rich, living safe and secure lives, being able-bodied and being mostly male. Overall, one may argue that the spread of activism by professional athletes may spread misinformation about ongoing movements and be ineffective at catalyzing change.

While this concern is certainly important when considering messages from athletes, it is important to have politics be a part of professional sports, regardless of its effectiveness. When fans are aware of the inherent political nature and history of sports leagues, they become more appreciative of the unique experiences of professional athletes and the powerful position they are in to create progress.

I am not saying that you have to agree with political statements made in sports. In fact, disagreement and discourse are how we can advance conversations about improving these organizations and the larger society. What is most dangerous, however, is refraining from political conversations or actively trying to depoliticize professional sports, creating stagnancy in change.

It is also not very difficult to solve this problem. The very least one can do is simply not reject political statements made in sports simply because they extend to issues beyond the game. One can also educate themselves on the history and current conditions of organizations to contextualize the current activism by athletes and be able to continue political movements.

For example, while there is more diverse representation in sports management than ever, with Kim Ng’s becoming the first female and East Asian general manager in the MLB, this type of progress can only continue if we recognize, above her qualifications for the position, the fundamental barriers that prevented her from achieving this feat earlier.

Watching sports can be very enjoyable, but it is also our duty as fans to ensure that the political histories and identities of sports leagues are not forgotten so, in the future, sports can be even more enjoyable for everyone.

Phillip Kong PO ’24 is from Toronto, Canada. If he could be an animal, he would be a whale.

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