Sports are Politics, Politics are Sports

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With a score of 28-3 late into the third quarter and an Atlanta Falcons lead, #BlackTwitter popped the champagne in its own special viral manner, letting the memes, gifs, and crying Jordan photo-overlays fly before the outcome was actually decided. A little too prematurely it would turn out, as the 4-Time Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots began to successfully march down the field, time-after-time, and tie up the game, eventually winning in overtime.

Watching an improbable come from behind victory from the Patriots on my very same television I had when state after state improbably voted for Donald Trump was unsettling.

The thematic comparisons alone between the 2017 Super Bowl and the 2016 Presidential elections, while flawed, are heavy-handed: the Patriots are represented by an authoritative head coach, feature a higher percentage of White Americans at prominent positions than anyone else in the league, and foster an environment contrary to individual identity or expression. They carry a perception of “playing the game the right way” with “working class” personnel. While Atlanta as a city has a national identity inclusive of both its prominent Black American upper and middle class representation and its bevy of hip-hop and R&B talent that has influenced our national music and culture. For every spectator of the Big Game residing outside the city limits of Boston or Atlanta, the ideological image of the New England Patriot Fan vs. the Atlanta Falcons Fan matched all too well with the split concept of the true identity of the “Real American” in 2017. All of these stretches and abstract correlations were dwarfed by the actual reality that is: the owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft, the coach Bill Belichick, and the quarterback Tom Brady are all publicly known to be friends and supporters of the divisive 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump[1].

For these reasons, the Super Bowl was a disappointment for many more viewers than those who consider themselves diehard Falcons fans. For a lot of folks, the Super Bowl was another showcasing of the battle between good and evil, one they felt had the better chance of positive outcome than in politics. I personally have hated the New England Patriots since my early teens when I had a family member battling them in the playoffs on rivaling teams over multiple years. A begrudging level of respect exists, sure, but where I should be in awe of record-setting dominance, I find myself sad. Another instance where “we needed this one” was almost in our grasp, just to slip away at the last moment.

Politically speaking, our two-party arrangement has long devolved into a sports rivalry. In an idealistic world our current political system would consist of a checks-and-balances, a push-pull, counteracting scale between liberal and conservative views, adding and subtracting aspects of socialism and capitalism to our legislation. What we have instead are two groups at such polarizing ends of the spectrum that we find large pockets of our population more concerned with being on “the winning side” than all other serious issues. People who are perfectly content with “sticking it to the other team” at whatever the cost may be to themselves and certainly what it may mean for anyone walking in a different set of life.

Debates have been converted to pep rallies. We defend our candidates like the star running back who got pulled over for a DUI last weekend. “I mean I don’t condone his actions, but I have his back if he can help us beat state! He’s OUR guy.”

Politics and political leanings have always had a presence in our daily lives, one that is just impossible to avoid in today’s climate. Sports have always been an extension of politics as well. While many, including myself, looks to sports as an escape from the drudgings of reality, the values of competitive athletics as we know it are, in fact, political. Sports offer us the closest vestige of a true meritocracy, where hard work and preparation most often translates into success. The professional league draft process, which allows teams to fill out missing pieces of their rosters with Rookie players, gives preference of the most promising Rookies to the least successful teams, giving everyone an equal chance to succeed. Um, these are literally two constant pillars of debate in the discussion of American politics, especially as it pertains to taxation and social services.

As professional athletes have firmly established themselves as celebrities in American culture, many of them have not shied away from taking public political stances. This infusion of politics that has descended all the way down to the level of the individual athlete has put everyone from team management, to the viewer themselves, and even to sportscaster in a position where the topic of political stance is inescapable. Long gone are the days where our sportscasters simply diagnosed plays for us viewers over the instant replay. Now we’re asking broadcasters, most of whom aren’t used to discussing culturally sensitive issues, to break down the social dynamics of a kneeling demonstration during the national anthem, a controversial tweet, or “Make America Great Again” paraphernalia in a player’s locker.

Ultimately, I hate the transformation of Politics into Sports, but don’t mind the symbolism we see in Sports, stemming from our Politics. Right or wrong, we all need to accountable for our views, and the discussions that stem from our beliefs will hopefully make us smarter and better ourselves through fear of sounding ignorant. In these particularly charged times I wish academics and community advocates had more influence over each of our respective decision-making processes. But for now, we depend on Sports and athletes to be the vehicle for pushing the agendas into the living rooms of millions of people each week. Hopefully we can start collectively acting right, and the extension of Politics into Sports can regress back into being more abstract, once more.

[1] It should be noted that the political affiliations of the Falcons were largely kept under wraps, but the outward recognition of the prominent Patriots members by the President during his campaign were damning enough as evidence in the court of popular opinion.

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