Athletes didn’t drag politics into sport – it was already there

The Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves in an untenable position this week.

The 2017 Stanley Cup champions had a choice to make. They could tour the White House and meet the President of the United States, as previous winners have done, thereby enraging his many vocal detractors. Alternatively, they could skip the event, provoking the same anger at the other end of the political spectrum.

The choice faced by the Pens takes place within a larger debate about the place of politics within sports. Should professional athletes and sports teams use their formidable platforms to argue for political causes, or should they “stay in their lane” and stick to sports?

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It’s a bad question, because it starts from a false assumption: that sports are inherently apolitical, and that athletes with particular views are bringing politics into sport. The reality is that the NHL and other professional leagues have long invited politics into their games, and that becomes apparent when we look at the recent flashpoints.

The visit to the White House is an obvious example. It’s a lot of things: a tradition, a status symbol for the league, a perk for the winning team and so on. Above all of those, it’s a publicity exercise. In exchange for the press that comes with visiting the President, the Stanley Cup champion agrees to act as a prop for whomever that happens to be at the moment.

The Pens did their best to downplay that truth in their public statement, which all but screamed that it wasn’t about politics; they were only doing it because it’s one of those things you do. That stance was immediately contradicted by the current President, who seized on the statement to reaffirm his legitimacy:

When that legitimacy is under attack — as it is for Donald Trump, as it was with Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — just showing up is a political stance. That’s why Trump was so quick to seize on Pittsburgh’s announcement.

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Teams and athletes aren’t bringing politics into sport when they decide to go, or not go, to the White House. Anything they do is political, and the situation is the fault of the league and past champions who were so eager to sign up for a photo opportunity with a politician.

The tradition is longer, and the politics less obvious, but the dynamic is similar when the national anthem is played prior to a sporting event.

There was a time the anthem wasn’t routinely played prior to sporting events. Rather, it became a pre-game tradition in wartime, with World War II generally acknowledged as the point where it became a staple. It never went away after that, and the specific rituals around it became a particular flashpoint during the Vietnam War — where it was used explicitly by the NFL as a way of showing support for that military effort.

The professional sports establishment has often used pregame ritual as a way of making political points — both of the genuine and paid variety. It is less than two years ago that an American senate report came out detailing a marketing campaign by the military which paid sports teams for militaristic and patriotic displays.

Professional sports leagues have long recognized their events as opportunities to make political statements, both out of firm belief and cynical self-interest. Sport isn’t some apolitical zone suddenly thrown into chaos by radical players dragging their beliefs and causes into the mix. Instead, it’s a political venue in which individual players are realizing they don’t have to go along with the status quo preferred by their teams or leagues.

Don’t believe me? As a thought exercise, imagine a world where pro sports teams didn’t visit the White House, one without pregame rituals featuring flags and anthems. There’s no opportunity within such a sport for an athlete to make political statements. He could still talk to reporters or hold events advocating for his particular cause, but those things would happen outside of the actual games.

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The point here is not to advocate for that change. It’s simply to say that sporting events are already inherently political. If people really don’t want to hear what athletes think about politics, the simplest solution is probably to stop putting them in politicized situations and expecting them to just go along with them.

***Note that this article is posted across the Nation Network and that comments are an open forum***

  • The mistake we all make is confusing politics with policy or issues of the day when, more often than not, it’s about tribalism. Humans are tribal animals, and we act out our tribal impulses through our advocacy for a particular political position, our cheerleading or disdain for a particular candidate, or virtue signalling in social media.

    This is not to say that we cannot come to support a particular position through an analysis of policy or judging the merits or character of a political actor or calling for a better form of justice but, for many of us, we unconsciously look to those who share our values in general first and then consciously devise a reason for this support.

    This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it is a characteristic of our evolutionary success, binding us together with our kin in defence of our homes or to work together to solve problems.

    It gets far more complex as tribalism carries itself over millions of people in times of chaos such as today. Today, tribalism in the form of political speech starts to invade facets of life which have already developed its own subculture culture to a point that politics supersedes all else, including sports.

    Fewer things are more arbitrary than cheering for a particular sports team. We cheer for the home team, or we root against the bad guys, even though there is very little to distinguish between the character or values of players of team than the next. We do it, at our heart, because we are tribal.

    From a fan’s perspective, sports is an analog through which people can act out tribal impulses in a superficial and ultimately inconsequential form. We can take out our aggressions psychologically, or assign hero archetypes to star players, or discover the importance of humility over hubris, and so on. And we do it in a way that can be contained within that sports culture without turning the broader society into revolution or civil war (Vancouver Stanley Cup runs aside).

    So, yes, politics has already found its way through sports as Willis points out, but the backlash against this latest invasion comes from the idea that we must choose sides with one tribe or the other – ” to kneel or not to kneel.”

    Except sports already has its tribes cut out for us. Inserting politics to our sports in this way disrespects those who choose to act out their tribalism in a different way.

    This latest invasion also fails to consider that there are myriad other forums to discuss these broader issues, with the implication that sports fans are somehow unaware of these forums, or hold the wrong views because of our unforgivable ignorance, stupidity or alleged unconscious bigotry.

    Therefore, as supporter and regular reader of this blog, I ask FlamesNation to give us a bit of respite from the political chaos out there. We are all aware of the issues being discussed and fought over, and we all have means to discuss it.

    Please consider whether your political opinions are respectful of our own views or our ability to seek out opportunities to discuss these on other forums. I don’t want to see this nonsense here, nor do I appreciate the self-righteous lecturing.

    I’ve already quit Twitter because of how stupid this entire political culture has become, and I won’t think twice about discovering other means through which to appreciate the Flames.

    Or, at least, to jeer the bloodsucking Oilers.

    • Captain Ron

      Great comment Rob. I gave you 10 props for it. I came to this site to discuss hockey and was introduced to analytics because of it. Suddenly I find myself reading quotes from Martin Luther King of all people on my favorite hockey blog. We are being bombarded by political and religious views from every angle now and it seems there is no escape from it.
      Can we get back to talking about hockey on this site again? I’d rather read Oiler fan troll comments than watch people here become divided over political and/or religious debates that will go on for all eternity.
      Hockey is an escape from all the stupidity we face in the world so let’s keep it that way shall we.

    • sloth

      Aww your favourite hockey blog infringed upon your right to ignore real-world oppression, and disrespected your choice to act out your tribalism in a superficial and inconsequential way. Good thing you had that choice, because the “tribalism” many people deal with in their day-to-day lives is called “white supremacy” and it often involves white cops shooting unarmed black people in the streets…

      And good job getting that pot shot at the Canucks and the “civil war” that was the 2011 Vancouver riot. Do you understand that a literal neo-Nazi attacked and killed anti-racism activists at an Alt-Right gathering to celebrate Confederate civil war heroes? Like, there was an actual Civil War in America 200 years ago which was fought largely over whether rich white people could continue to own black-skinned human beings as private property and farm equipment. And then like a month ago, thousands of people in America traveled to Charlottesville to condemn or celebrate this chapter of their national history, in an era of already unprecedented racial tension, and one of the “white nationalists” drove his car into a crowd of innocent citizens with the clear intention of hurting and killing. And you’re making fun of those nasty Vancouver Canucks and their fans for the rioters smashing some windows and burning some cars 6 years ago, because that was a real disgraceful “civil war.” You’re truly pathetic and really need to think about your identity and privilege that allows you to make such crass and flippant comments about very serious issues for millions of our neighbours in the name of your petty sports tribalism.

      And your points about the value of sports tribalism don’t hold up to scrutiny. If it’s such a good way to “take out our aggressions … in a way that can be contained within the sports culture,” why did the Red Mile in Calgary turn into a sexual assault festival in the 2004 and 2015 playoffs? Perhaps you should sign up for Twitter again and turn off the stupid NHL if you can’t see what actually matters and what doesn’t. I’ll give you a hint, the rivalries between the Flames and Canucks and Oilers sure don’t. Sheesh.

      • Southboy

        get over it. If a person wants to tune it out, and has the oppurtunity to do so, we should apologize for that? Because of this choice, you judge us all as people who dont care, or dont our part. You my friend are the type that fuel the fire.

  • Total Points

    There are many web sites where politics can be discussed. Please Oiler Nation don’t turn this into a political/hockey web site.

    Please Please

    I want discussions about McDavid’s greatness and how Flames suck

    • oilcanboyd

      or how McDavid sucks an the Flames are great!

      McDavid.s shot is the speed of a smurf ball-less than half the speed of Cosby’s shot…not just me saying this but hockey analysts on Sportsnet…

  • Derzie

    There will always be people that disagree. That’s a fact. All of this hubbub started by Colin Kaepernick to draw attention to the fact that white US police were shooting and killing unarmed black people without repercussions. The NFL elite blackballed him. Trump used to to sharpen the divide between his deploreables and the thinking population AND to distract from the fact that soon the Russia probe will end his adventure. The positive is more people are aware of the plight of unarmed black citizens in the US. The negative is there are roughly half of the population of the US that are just fine with racial and economic divides. In Canada, it is probably closer to 30% are OK with the divide. Most of the attempts to change the minds is blowing hot air around but the discussion chips away at the people who just need better information about the world to be able to draw better conclusions. Education is not a silver bullet but it is a bullet.

  • Riley Miner

    Willis is entirely right; NA sports are inherently political. Heck, on a world scale, athletes have been politicized. Whether it be a politician taking a photo op with an athlete, an entertainment channel asking an athlete for their opinion on a social issue… Athletes are public figures. People look up to them, and that offers them an inherent power to inflict social change. Here’s the kicker here: NA sports are predominantly white. Athletes (and humans in general) do not speak much about issues they cannot relate to, and so a voice on things like police brutality, inequality and discrimination is decidedly lacking. Not to mention, there is a culture in sport that ‘distractions’ are abhorrent and should be avoided at all cost. To a majority white owned and occupied league, a black player speaking out about racial inequalities is a distraction because they do not have to think about it, and it’s an uncomfortable subject. And so here’s the trap; black players are discouraged and have not spoken out in large numbers until now.

    The fact is, it’s important for athletes to do this. To kneel, to speak out. Because as a community, we hadn’t paid a second thought to these issues before. It was a black issue. Now it is a national issue. Is that unfortunate? As a young, white dude who feels empathy to these groups and wishes social change, I believe not. We live in a state of privilege as white dudes, and that is uncomfortable to acknowledge. The fact is, hockey players (and the Penguins) have decided their ‘bubble’ is more important than addressing a serious problem that has plagued America, and let’s face it, Canada as well for decades. So yes, it’s important for us not to stick to sports. It’s important to think about these things, so we can grow as a society and as a sport. The truth of the matter is, this isn’t good for a lot of non-white hockey fans. This is what they have seen, heard and felt from the hockey community. Silence. How are they supposed to feel welcomed when the Stanley Cup champions decide to honor the office of a president who has denounced black activists and defended white supremacists? Who has decided to make white supremacists his closest advisers in his governance? Ignoring this issue like we always did before shouldn’t be acceptable anymore. We as a hockey community can do better, and should do better. Right and left aside, we need to stand up for our fellow human beings, and fellow hockey fans.

  • The GREAT WW

    For those of you who were not paying attention last year: here is the Coles notes;

    -Trump was a terrible candidate for president….
    -Clinton was a terrible candidate for president…..
    -Sanders was a terrible candidate for president…..

    Any questions?


  • Killer Marmot

    Politics is in sports in the sense that athletes are required to be respectful to the flag and anthem — patriotism in its broadest and least controversial terms. When a politician does participate at a sporting event — the PM kicking a football to start of the Grey Cup, for example — it’s seen as honouring the political office rather than the politician.

    What sports does avoid, however, are specific endorsements or condemnations of politicians and their policies. That has traditionally been a no-go zone. And for good reason. It respects that fact that fans have wide and varied political allegiances. Sports is saying “It’s not our place to tell you whether your politics are right or wrong.”

    Hockey breaks that barrier at its own peril.

  • Holycow

    All these sheep, waiting with baited breath for the next hate wave coming from CNN and CBC. Anxiously waiting for the talking heads to tell them what to be angry about next.

    Trump was wrong to call the players SOB, this is true. He should probably delete Twitter, no question. However, many American’s agree with what he said and many American’s are rightly pissed off.

    As for the athletes, you have a first amendment right to say want you want, no question. But the first amendment does not only give you the right to say what you want, but also to hear things you don’t like or agree with. Everyone can agree that if a player flew a confederate flag on the sidelines( His first amendment right?) it would be greatly offensive and everyone would call for that player to be suspended or contract terminated (rightly so). Kneeling for the anthem is the same idea, it is greatly offensive to many people, hence why people are calling for the boycott of the NFL. You have a right to speak and protest as you like…. be prepared for the consequence and backlash when you do.

    • Not a First Tier Fan

      Exercising your first amendment right isn’t against the law.

      However someone in a public position like the Presidency encouraging private business owners to fire their employees over some perceived slight is. (Ever hear the phrase ‘Abuse of power’?). If the Republican congress had any spine Trump would be getting a vote of censure at the very least.

    • oilcanboyd

      Make America Great Again = Make the Trumps Great Again.
      Make America Great Again = Make America White Again. So much of Trump’s support is from rednecks, gun toting NRA members.

  • Happy McDavid Decade

    I have no issues whether athletes decide to stand or take a knee for the purposes of protesting / supporting / continuing their normal routines.

    If Colin Kaepernick wants to sit during the Star Spangled Banner, fine.
    If prior to a race NASCAR drivers stand, or prior to a President’s Cup match golfers stand for the anthem, fine.
    If Jerry Jones wants to lock arms and take a knee, but then stands once the music starts, fine.
    If Johnny Gaudreau wants to stand when guest singer starts belting out “Oh say can you see,” but takes a knee when George Canyon begins “O Canada,” I’ll raise my eyebrow (maybe he think Justin’s still not ready, or the amount he’s being taxed, or that he’s relegated to possibly playing in an aging Saddledome for the forseeable future).

    The point is, as very eloquently worded by Mr. Willis, is that politics has always been in sports to some capacity. These past few days have only amplified that relationship due to the actions of one politician / businessman and the response of many athletes, sports teams, owners, businesses, etc. I’m not American, but I can certainly understand why they would want to exercise one of their rights that they dearly to: the First Amendment. Just as their President can state his opinion on the largest social media platform, Athletes can state their opinion on another platform.

    It is unfortunate that this topic is only further polarizing individuals and possibly making some people choose a side. I just hope that we all come out of these interesting times as better people individually and collectively, whether we’re Canadian, American, French, Syrian, Korean (whether you’re from Pyongyang or Pyeongchang).

    Yes I know it’s a fluff post full of optimism. I’m hoping for the best, but maybe still will plan for the worst. But while some current National Anthem actions are taking heavy criticism, I still remember other National Anthem actions not too long ago that were being praised (see Preds fans singing O Canada as a return thanks to Leafs Fans, Oilers fans helping out Brett Kissel with his wonky mic during the Star Spangled Banner). Not all National Anthem incidents end so badly…

    • That's My Point

      A player/coach can’t be truthful about the terrible officiating of their games without getting fined but yet can spout whatever they want about anything else and there are no consequences. Maybe the NHL should get rid of the fines for players speaking the truth about the game and clean up the mess they created by not letting the problems be voiced in the first place.

  • madjam

    Truth or a lie test : Canada does not constitutionally exist to this day and the federal government has no constitutional right to exist to this day because of it . Yet you and I have been taught from cradle to grave that The BNA act and it’s founders formed the country known as Canada , when they actually voted against it . Each province is still it’s own country with allegiance to the British crown until such time as we form the country of Canada .

      • madjam

        That did not change a thing as we are still basically under The Statutes of Westminster , until the premiers can agree 100% on forming Canada . Same question was posed to Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau , yet they basically failed to produce a resolution to solve the problem . Provinces have in unity still passed such legislation such as Bill Of Rights , Canada Act , etc., and other legislation they have all agreed upon despite not finalizing the forming of Canada as a legal and constitutional nation .

  • OilersDynasty

    Of course politics are in sports. How else do you explain the last 25 Stanley Cup champs being American teams? Or that the Coyotes are still where they are when they should’ve been shipped out a decade ago?

  • Not a First Tier Fan

    Great article by Willis here. He didn’t specifically mention Trump in it but you can’t ignore the fact that this latest supposed controversy is a direct result of the Tweeter-in-chief disrespecting the first amendment rights of the citizens he took an oath to protect.

    It goes beyond racism or sexism or any other ‘ism’… There are a ton of really good people who got swindled into supporting this professional con-man. The snake oil was in good supply last year and there were a lot of people drinking it.

    Here we are though – eight months into his corrupt and incompetent presidency. If After all he has done, and all the dereliction of the things a president is supposed to do, you find yourself still supporting him … then you are just as horrible a person as he is. And Trump is the President that you deserve.

    It’s just too bad that the rest of the world is on this nightmare plunge with you.

  • Larionov18

    Keep politics out of the NHL. Sportnet 650 was so left wing it was unbearable to listen to after the kneeling event. Let’s keep left and right wing politics out of our Hockey

  • Free Bird

    I agree with Willis that sports are inherently political due to the rituals they have adopted over the years. However, I think the issue here is the extent to which they are politicized. It seems like anyone with an account on a social media platform can now express faux-outrage towards any athlete who associates with a politician with views that differ from theirs, and the media then recycles the chatter to fill their daily quota of tabloid news. The result is even further politicization of sports when the silent majority (assuming there is one) just want to enjoy sports and keep the moral judgements and political circus out of it.

  • ed from edmonton

    I will premiss my comments with stating that I have never really understood why national anthem are played at North American sporting events. Throughout the rest of the world national anthems are not played other than when national teams are representing their country.

    To me the question is whether a player has the right to use the sporting event to express their own views. They are getting paid to play sport, should they be doing anything else? If one were to say they should not be expressing such opinions, would this also include athletes expressing religious outlooks, such ad pointing to the sky after a triumph? My

      • Oil consuming Flames

        Remove the National anthems from professional sporting events. This will remove the particular platform that these morons are standing on,.. Or not Standing on as it were. They can feel free to take a knee, link arms with their teammates and owners, pose a “Black Power” salute, or what ever they want during the game.

        Before the slings and arrows get broken out to be hurled at me for calling these losers “morons” in my post, just remember, if you support them, you are supporting their freedom to express their opinion and to demonstrate peacefully.
        I am simply exercising my right to express my opinion of the people doing that.