“Just play the game.”
“Stay in your lane.”
“Stop making everything so political.”
We’ve probably all heard these critiques of athletes at some point. When sports stars choose to use their platforms to raise awareness for political issues, they are inevitably met with criticism and often hostility.
Last month, for example, the MLB All-Star Game was relocated out of Georgia after the state passed a restrictive voting rights bill that made it illegal to provide things like food and water to voters waiting in line, among other measures to limit voting in urban areas.
This move prompted backlash from politicians and sports fans alike — even Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp had something to say. But Kemp failed to realize that sports are inherently political. Politics is embedded into the very nature of sports, from how the game is played to who is allowed access.
This isn’t just a modern phenomenon — sports and politics have been inseparable throughout history.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson made history when he became the first Black man to play in the MLB. Although a major breakthrough in the realm of sports, Robinson’s advancement had political implications far beyond the baseball field.
During the 1936 Berlin Olympics, African American athlete Jesse Owens took home four gold medals in track and field. This demonstrated political as well as athletic victory over Nazi Germany, which was attempting to use the event to demonstrate the power of its authoritarian regime.
Thirty-two years later, at the Mexico City Olympics, two American track and field stars raised fists on the podium to protest U.S. race relations and the Vietnam War. This display of civil disobedience occurred during the most politically tumultuous decade of the 20th century, marked by war abroad and the civil rights movement at home.
Sports even originated as ways to determine social status, with the victors becoming symbols for social, political and religious power. The very first Olympics? Mayan ball games? All examples of how sporting events and political influence go hand-in-hand.
You don’t need to look to ancient history to see how sports can have political implications. Evidence of this is in our own backyard.
In 2017, North Carolina saw boycotts from the NCAA and NBA after the passing of House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom bill.” This piece of legislation repealed anti-discrimination protections for transgender people and restricted public restroom access based on the sex listed on your birth certificate.
Last summer, UNC student athletes and coaches led marches for Black Lives Matter after the police killing of George Floyd.
It’s also time to shift how we think about sports as institutions, and how we view athletes as people.
There is no evidence that sports organizations have been, nor should be, apolitical. They exist in a political world, hold events in blue and red cities, are owned by people who have political opinions and cater to fans with their own political identities. There is no reason to think of sports as being immune to political influence.
Although it shouldn’t have to be said, athletes are people, too. They are no less capable of having their own opinions and political leanings, and they live lives off the field that we can’t see. Athletes don’t just exist for our entertainment.
This seems obvious, but our actions don’t always treat athletes as such.
Remember when football player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice? 49ers fans burned their jerseys and labeled Kaepernick as un-American — he was seen as a football player before he was seen as a Black man in America.
To his fans, Kaepernick was a symbol of American football, not social justice. They failed to see him as complex and able to represent both. The same is true for the MLB, America’s pastime. And for UNC’s athletes.
It’s time to recognize how inherently political sports are, as well as the deeply intertwined histories of both sports and politics. Ignoring this can cause us to dehumanize athletes and the very real issues they seek to bring awareness to.
It’s time to stop shouting “just play the game” because you don’t agree with the message.
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