Politics and Sports

It is foolish to think that we ever escape politics.

Yahoo Sports reports: Report: NBA to let players replace names on jerseys with social justice statement in Florida

When the NBA attempts to resume its season next month at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida, the league will allow players to have a say in customizing their jerseys.

Players, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, will be able to replace the last name on their jerseys with a statement on social justice.

The Players Association reportedly sent initial details of the plan to players on Saturday night, and is currently working with both the league and Nike on how to implement it.

I have four quick thoughts before getting to what inspired me to post on this:

  1. This makes me think of the original XFL and “He Hate Me.” I have no idea if that is what they are trying to do.
  2. To be honest, I like names on jerseys so I know who is who.
  3. The cynic in me thinks Nike cares because they see a chance to sell more merch.
  4. I have no problem with this idea, however.

I noticed this story via a tweet from Jonah Goldberg earlier this afternoon (including my response):

The lament about sports and politics is not a new one. A decades-old (indeed, only a few months less old than me) example would be Olympic medalists displaying the black power salute in 1968.

I mean, after all, how dare they bring politics into a competition based on geopolitical boundaries and wrapped up neatly in nationalism? I mean, seriously, no politics while we play national anthems and fly flags, for crying out loud!

And, of course, the whole brouhaha over kneeling during the National Anthem is likewise seen as injecting politics into sports.

But, as should be obvious from my snark about the ’68 Olympics, playing the National Anthem itself is injecting politics into sports.

The notion that sports are divorced from politics, or are a total escape from politics, is nonsense.

Heck, part of the reason the state of Mississippi is going to change its flag is because of pressure from the SEC (and I don’t mean the Securities and Exchange Commission).

Was it political when there was a Negro League and the MLB?

Was Jackie Robinson’s career political?

Muhammad Ali’s?

How about Pat Tillman’s?

Was it political when major college football was all white?

Was it political when blacks were deemed not intelligent enough to play quarterback?

It is political now that most head coaches in football and basketball are white (college and pros)? Likewise managers in the MBL.

Is the name of the Washington DC NFL franchise political? (To pick only the most prominent example).

Is the tomahawk chop?

How about the NBA’s reaction to criticism of China?

Are politics involved in how the US Men’s and Women’s national soccer teams are treated?

Are flyovers by military aircraft at games by military planes political?

How about NFL Military Appreciation Month or Cancer Awareness displays?

What about having municipalities fund stadium construction?

One could go on and on and on.

Going back to my tweet above: politics is inescapable and almost certainly when one thinks that one is operating in a “politics free” zone that just means one’s own political power is in operation.

All of human interactions are political.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. JohnMcC says:

    That’s all indisputably true. But I’d suggest it’s of greater relative importance in this present civilization; the proliferation of screens and the virtual legalization of gambling and probably quite a few aspects of our modern life have a lot to do with the place of sport.

    Of course, there is Riefenstahl making the Olympics a totally political show (and since Nazi — racist of course) long time passing.

  2. DrDaveT says:


    Of course, there is Riefenstahl making the Olympics a totally political show

    If you think Riefenstahl started that, you have failed to learn your history. The whole idea of amateur athletics (as distinct from professional athletics) is a political concept.

  3. An Interested Party says:

    Steven, grant poor Jonah Goldberg a little slack…after all, this is the same person who wrote Liberal Fascism, so it is pretty obvious that he doesn’t quite understand politics…

  4. Gustopher says:

    @An Interested Party:

    this is the same person who wrote Liberal Fascism, so it is pretty obvious that he doesn’t quite understand politics…

    And he has gotten this ridiculous claim accepted by 40% of the country. He might understand politics better than you think…

  5. de stijl says:

    Anyone who believes that US sports were apolitical until black people requested redress was not paying attention. Like, at all.

    Sports prescribe one sort of American conception.

    Flags, national anthem, standing with approved hand gestures. The water we swim in is nationalistically political and designed to be so.

    Don’t even get me started on requiring grade school kids to recite the pledge of allegiance. That is full authoritarian creepy.

  6. Kylopod says:

    Anyone follow the recent kerfuffle where some RATM fans complained about the band becoming too political? That just might be the ultimate reductio ad absurdum to this line of thinking.


  7. de stijl says:


    I loved the retort Rage *Alongside* The Machine.

    Dude compared RATM to Pink. Which is the coolest thing ever for Pink. (I kinda like her)

    I am super intrigued you pegged to this. You are a very analytical person in your comments generally. I would not have called you for a NME reader or RATM fan. I am happy to be be surprised.

    Long ago I used to budget for the new issue of NME and one album.

  8. JohnMcC says:

    @DrDaveT: OK then, make the reference to the Jack Johnson/Great White Hope era. That was still a period of expansive media and the beginning of rapid communication — the ‘Yellow Press’ and widespread telegraphy. And ‘sport’ is in an embrace with ‘politics’ but not the sort of media power it currently holds. It’s current status requires the multiple outlets of the digital age and lots of money sloshing around in a way that’s particularly modern.

    If you’re saying that ‘sport’ as ‘politics’ is as old as media, my answer is Yep! We could probably chase the date back to the original Olympics. But it was different.

  9. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl: I’m not an NME reader. That’s just the source I found when looking it up on Google. I had heard the story earlier.

    I am, however, a huge RATM fan.

    I’ve noticed over the years there are a surprising number of conservative RATM fans. When Paul Ryan said he was a fan in 2012, Morello commented that Ryan is the “embodiment of the machine our music rages against.” The thing is, I’m almost sympathetic to Ryan in this situation, because it’s possible to love a band’s music without sharing their politics–despite how central politics are to RATM and how much of an idiot a person has to be not to realize that. And while my politics are closer to RATM than Ryan’s are, they’re still well to my left. I’ve got no bones with the sentiment in “Killing in the Name”; in fact I quoted it here the other day. But I get rather annoyed watching the Michael Moore-directed video to “Testify,” where they mock Al Gore as no different than Bush. I feel like the people promoting that point of view are, in some ways, partly responsible for the hole this country is in, including many of the very things Morello complains about.

  10. de stijl says:

    I appreciate your sharing.

    NME was super expensive back when. Imported. British. Reviews of bands we hadn’t even heard of.

    The reason I bought it was because it told me what to listen to next.

    NME was Rolling Stone × 10.

    Not understanding that RATM is explicitly political is astounding. It is right there on the tin.

    I guess people hear what they want to hear.

  11. Mister Bluster says:
  12. Mister Bluster says:
  13. James Joyner says:

    Since everything is politics, sports is inherently political.

    The real question has been: Whose politics?

    Historically, the leagues/owners have tried to control the message for what they saw was the benefit of the league. Not taking sides in controversial matters like civil rights, LGBT issues, police brutality, and whathaveyou is inherently taking sides with the status quo. But, at the same time, it’s not rocking the boat ands creates the illusion of being non-political.

    So, playing the National Anthem or America the Beautiful ahead of or during breaks in the action in sporting events is of course political. But it’s the league wrapping itself in patriotism and attempting to create a feel-good moment. Presumably, that was focus-grouped.

    When Colin Kaepernick and others started highjacking that faux patriotism to call attention to their own political causes, some fans were naturally upset and the owners were furious. So, they clamped down on “politics.”

    Presumably, the owners are now making the calculation that being on the wrong side of #BlackLivesMatter is costlier than the controversy.

  14. Tyrell says:

    @de stijl: Sports and politics:
    At the places I have worked I would have been shown the door if I got into politics or religion.
    I am against any tax money for pro sports. Why should my tax money go for a new stadium when I won’t be able to afford to go to a game? $20 parking, $5 hot dogs, $4 soft drink, and the $25 ticket! And that is for one person. The teams are owned by billionaire owners. Why should the taxpayers supplement them?
    One hockey coach in Connecticut made it clear: no kneeling during either one of the anthems.
    The NFL has lost a lot of fans: games are too long, too many commercials and time outs, over-saturation, crummy matchups, and now all the politics.
    NASCAR has gone down too. They have abandoned their fan base because of confusing rules, look-alike cars, and bland drivers. Some of the speedways have removed part of their grandstands.
    I go to sports channels to watch sports, not political and social commentary.
    WWE has run circles around the other pro sports in terms of keeping their show going. “Wrestlemania” was one of the best ever with its two-night format. “Money In the Bag” was also very creative. I don’t think that King Corbin or Randy Orton are going to be kneeling down for anything.
    All the schools around here have the Pledge of Allegiance every school day, and before all events. The parents would be livid if that was ever done away with.

  15. Sleeping Dog says:


    $20 parking, $5 hot dogs, $4 soft drink, and the $25 ticket! And that is for one person.

    It’s been a while since you went to a game hasn’t it? Those prices would be for division 3 college football/basketball.

    I am against any tax money for pro sports.
    Why should the taxpayers supplement them?

    The most intelligent statements you’ve ever posted here.

  16. de stijl says:

    I find the national anthem at sporting events weird and creepy.

  17. DrDaveT says:


    I am against any tax money for pro sports.

    …but I’m guessing you have no problem with public universities spending millions on football instead of education? Major college sports are pro sports where everyone except the players get paid.