Sports and Politics
A Society without Sports is No Society at all
It was 1968. The Summer Olympic Games were in full swing in Mexico City’s Olympic Stadium. USA’s Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished in 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the 200 meter race. The Star-Spangled Banner blared from the speakers as the United States flag swayed in the wind. Instead of the classic hand-on-the-heart pose, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised one fist. The symbol for black power shocked the world. The event is considered to be one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history (“Politics”, 2011).
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In a perfect world, sports would be completely devoid of politics. Athletes around the world would take the field without any political motives. The world is not perfect, and politics ripple through the sports atmosphere. Examples can be found everywhere, from Muhammad Ali’s draft refusal to Brazilian citizen protest of the 2014 Olympics. The separation of politics in sports is impossible. Sports will always be viewed to some as nothing but a political platform, intent on taking value away from the game itself.
The biggest stage for political action in sports belongs to the Olympic Games. Records show that the Olympics started in 776 BC, and were dedicated to the Gods. The Olympics, though religious in nature, were also used to encourage good relations among ancient Greek cities (“Ancient”, 2013). Today, the timeless Greek tradition is carried on, drawing athletes from around the globe. Every four years, millions will gather to watch the Olympic Games from around the world. However, some athletes choose to use this coverage to further political movements and ideas. It is not just about the Olympics, but about furthering a specific political agenda. Evidence can be found by exploring the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) intentionally awarded Germany with the Summer Games, intending to help Germany return to the global community after the horrors of World War I. However, 1936 Germany had fallen into the clutches of Adolf Hitler, and Nazism became the country’s political regime. Nazism entered the sports world in 1933, declaring that any “non-Aryan” athletes would be barred from competition.
As the Summer Olympics rolled around, Hitler masked his racist views from the rest of the world. Instead, he used the Games as a vehicle to promote an open-minded and progressive Germany. The Games went from a friendly global competition to the promotion of political ideals. Hitler knowingly exploited the Olympics to publicize a new, tolerant German regime (“Nazi”, 2013). Another example comes from the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne saw a vast amount of political activity with two different protests. Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon also withdrew in protest of Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands joined in the boycott for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. The 1956 Games saw only 3,500 athletes due to the political movements (Rosenberg, 2013). The third event worth mentioning is the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics. As mentioned earlier, Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists into the air as a symbol of black oppression in America. In response, the IOC banned the two athletes from the Olympic Village, with ultimately led to banishment from the Games altogether (“Politics”, 2011).
The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China provides a more modern example. In 2008, China was internationally known for having a repressive government and poor human rights. The IOC’s city choice outraged human rights groups on the ground that the Games would legitimize China’s repressive government. These are just a few examples of politics taking a major stand in the athletic world. However, the message is clear. The modern Olympic Games can be defined by politics. In 1956, six countries refused the invitation in order to make a political statement. The Olympics are supposed to be about global unity and entertainment. Instead, countries insist to use the Games as a political platform to prove a point. The ancient Greeks did not start the Olympics as a tool for international political influence, but that is the way it played out.
Diego Maradona is one of the most controversial soccer stars in history. In the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, Diego Maradona and Argentina faced off against England. The two countries had not met since Argentina invaded the British-controlled Falkland Islands, leading to the Falklands War. Argentina laid claim to the Islands long before the British colonization. The game turned into a huge tension point for both countries. During the second half, Maradona scored the game-winning goal using his right-hand. The inexperienced referees did not notice the blunder, declaring the goal legitimate. After the game, Maradona was quoted stating the goal was “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” The goal became known as the “hand of God” (Coggin, 2013). England was infuriated with the goal, claiming that Maradona cheated. The country of Argentina found immense satisfaction with the goal, due to the sour military meeting prior. To Maradona, the goal was just a fake. He didn’t think there would be any political implications. England, along with the rest of Argentina, viewed the scenario differently. The World Cup also lies prey to politics. Earlier this year, protesters took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, protesting the Brazilian government’s incredible spending on the 2014 World Cup.
Citizens are outraged at the billions of dollars spent on preparing Rio de Janeiro for the international tournament. This money, they argue, should be going towards better public services. Members of Brazil’s professional soccer team have sided with protesters, acknowledging the citizens’ desire for an honest regime. In this modern case, athletes are directly participating in the politics surrounding the World Cup. These particular athletes place more significance on the politics than the game itself (Savarese, 2013). Future World Cup locations bring on political speculations as well. FIFA decided to mark Qatar as the World Cup location in 2022. However, the International Trade Union Federation has deemed the conditions of stadium works as life-threatening. Migrant workers are being forced to build the monstrous stadium with little to no pay, horrible hours, and awful living conditions. The Qatari government prohibits any more information attempts. Critics also blame FIFA, as the international soccer organization sits by and does nothing about deplorable conditions. The Qatari government claims to have the fiasco under control, but the world continues to wait for improvements (Chorra, 2013). Brazil takes the cake of countries completely obsessed with soccer. In 1998, Brazil’s team obtained the first seed, and they were favored heavily to win the championship.
However, France took away their title where Brazil lost 3-0. Three years later, soccer superstar Ronaldo was called before a Senate Commission for investigating circumstances regarding the defeat. The government could not let the game end in defeat without some sort of investigation. The amount of passion for soccer in Brazil is unprecedented. Brazil’s government is closely fused with soccer (Hooper, 2010). According to FIFA, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa brought in over three billion viewers worldwide. Over 46 percent of the population tuned in. Over 619 million people watched the final match. This game comes in second to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony in most watched sporting event of all time (“Almost”, 2011). Simon Hooper of CNN argues that the World Cup can mold the future of a country. Normal international powerhouses like China and India cannot even field a competitive team, while globally insignificant countries like Honduras and Algeria get their chance at a spotlight. A World Cup victory brings glory to the entire nation. Countries pride themselves on hosting the World cup (Hooper, 2010). The tournament brings a sense of global unity matched only by the Olympics. The entire scene is extraordinarily political. Although politics affects the realm of international sporting events, domestic sports feel the same political pressures as well. Arguably, America’s most popular sport is football. Football enjoys a big and loyal fan-base, but even that isn’t enough to hide from speculation. Recently, football has come under fire for being too dangerous.
In a documentary title “A League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis”, Frontline explores the correlations between professional football and head trauma. The documentary begins the discussion with the unexpected death of NFL superstar Mike Webster. Upon Webster’s autopsy, Dr. Bennett Omalu noticed signs of significant brain damage. After cross-referencing Webster’s brain with other NFL players, Omalu concluded that repeated hits to the head increases the chance of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Due to the nature of football, many players suffer from CTE. Those suffering from CTE suffer from memory loss, depression, confusion, and impaired judgment. Omalu, despite protests from NFL executives, took his findings public, showing Americans the strong correlation between head trauma and football (“League”, 2013). The findings brought along a lawsuit between the NFL and more than four thousand retired players. Retired NFL players claim that the NFL knew about potential brain damage from the sport, but elected to keep the information concealed. The organization insists that player safety has always been a top priority. The issue ultimately settled out of court, with the NFL agreeing to pay a collective 765 million dollars to players with brain damage (“NFL”, 2013).
The NFL continues to deal with repercussions of the settlement, with many questioning the overall safety of football at every level of play. Other aspects of Football have also come under fire. Earlier this year, midway through the 2013 NFL season, Miami Dolphins rookie player Jonathan Martin abandoned his team. The reason? Locker room hazing. After Martin skipped out on a few training camps, fellow teammate Richie Incognito left him a slanderous voicemail. The NFL obtained transcripts of the voicemail, clearly appalled by the language. The Miami Dolphins’ executives and the NFL agreed to suspend Incognito indefinitely. Incognito’s actions sheds light on locker room hazing, and the issue gained national attention seemingly overnight. After the incident gained national attention, different sources chimed in with their thoughts. Lyndon Murtha played offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins from 2009 to 2012, and he completely disagrees with the allegations of Incognito bullying Martin. Murtha writes that from Martin’s draft in 2012, he did not want to be part of the Miami family. Murtha describes his behavior as standoffish and shy. Martin was initially drafted to assist Incognito at left tackle. Incognito knew this, and took Martin under his wing. When practice got difficult, Incognito helped Martin out. If Martin slacked off, Incognito got on his case and told him so.
Practice dragged on, and Martin still refused to join the family. Coaches intervened, telling Incognito to “bring him out of his shell”, and the rest is history. Murtha deems football as a “man’s job, and if there’s any weak link, it gets weeded out” (Murtha, 2013). Incognito’s hazing incident is a great example of politics taking control of sports. While the issue does deserve attention from the team, there is absolutely no reason for the rest of the nation to get involved. National media and Americans jumped on the “suspend Incognito” bandwagon before the truth surfaced. Football is a sport, and there will always be some sports related mishaps. However, these mishaps are for that specific team to deal with. There is no reason for external influence, especially when facts are still being disputed. Whether Incognito should or should not be suspended, it is not a decision that the public needs to know.
The most important aspect of politics in football lies with the association itself. The entire NFL organization is nothing but a political government to professional football. The NFL makes the rules and enforces the rules. Of the 32 professional teams in the US, every single one answers to the NFL. Within this government are 32 sub-governments: each specific team. The main mission of every team is not to simply play football, but to win. Winning takes the cake in terms of significance. Teams pay millions of dollars for superstar players, hoping to win the all-valuable Super Bowl. This massive pay for players forces them to become political property. A player’s job is not to simply go out and play, it is to provide the team with the best chance of winning. Confirmation comes with the Dallas Cowboys. According to Forbes, the Dallas Cowboys franchise is worth over two billion dollars. Under owner Jerry Jones, the Cowboys built the AT&T stadium valued at 1.2 billion dollars. In 2013, the estimated overall revenue for the Dallas Cowboys clocks in at a whopping 539 million dollars (“Dallas”, 2013). The Cowboys bring in more money than some countries do. On September 8, the Dallas Cowboys hosted the New York Giants for Sunday Night Football. During the game, camera’s panned from the game over to the owner’s box, catching owner Jerry Jones chatting with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The social network atmosphere blew up with comments about the pair. With one move of the camera, America turned its focus from the football game to the political figures who happened to be watching it (Luciew, 2013).
None of this would be possible if professional football wasn’t controlled by politics. Professional football became dependent on politics when winning became more important than playing the game. Team owners don’t deal with all the stress for the love of football, it’s for the love of money. Professional players don’t put up with all the gruesome hits and tackles because they love the game, it is because the game is their job. When football became a job, the game as a unit of honest entertainment died. Professional football and politics share one massive trait. It’s always about winning.
Sports, whether international and domestic, should not be about politics. The Olympics should be about the fun of competition. Political movements should have no place within. The World Cup should be about a global
population brought together by the world’s most popular sport. Countries shouldn’t use the extra coverage as a political vehicle. American football teams shouldn’t place such a high value on winning. Sure, everybody wants to win, but the fun of playing must always outweigh the former. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the slightest. Sports will always carry the tarnish of politics. Humans are political beings, and our sports’ dependence on politics proves it. Therefore, sports is not about playing the game, but the political implications of the game being played.
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