The Purpose of Sports
Recently, Olympic hopeful hammer thrower Gwen Berry threw a temper tantrum on the podium as she won the third-place position on the US Olympic team. She was pissed off and angry at the playing of the US National Anthem, so she turned her back on the flag and put a t-shirt over her head. Not a very mature reaction to what should have been one of Ms. Berry’s greatest achievements in life; an achievement thousands of athletes strive for, and few obtain, a position on the US Olympic team.
Ms. Berry had protested from the podium previously. After raising her fist on the podium at the Pan American Games in 2019 she was placed on probation by the US Olympic Committee and prohibited from making any form of protest for a year. However, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd (and the leftward lurch by many US institutions) restrictions of protests “in support of racial and social justice for all human beings” was permitted.
But what about other forms of protest? The social justice agenda is based on an ideology not shared by all people. Some people support an ideology of personal liberty and economic freedom that is opposed to the forced redistribution of wealth and income that social justice implies. What if the other hammer throwers on the podium (who stood proudly facing the flag with their hands over their hearts) had worn MAGA hats as a form of protest (please note I have no idea of the feelings of those athletes on this matter-this is just a thought exercise). Would such a protest have been allowed by the newly “woke” US Olympic Committee? What if the athletes on the podium confronted each other about their different political views? Wouldn’t such a spectacle have made a mockery of the athletic accomplishment of the athletes?
What is the purpose of sports competitions? No one really knows why the Greeks began the ancient Olympics almost three thousand years ago. It obviously had some religious significance as the games were held at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, Greece. But I believe that it must have also had something to do with the solidarity of a common Greek identity among the constantly warring Greek city-states and petty kingdoms. The people attending the games were considered to be under the protection of Zeus and were allowed to travel unmolested through local conflicts. The winners at the games were held in high regard and had their names inscribed in stone.
Sports competitions are more than mere entertainment. There is a bonding among competitors even as they compete against other teams and each other. The competitors share a love of their sport. They also must share a similar work ethic and training regimen to excel at the highest level of their sport. After playing for their national teams at the World Cup, elite soccer players return to their professional teams where they warmly greet their fellow team members that they recently competed against.
It is impossible to completely eliminate politics from sports. The United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. And there is talk of the US boycotting the winter Olympics in China to protest civil rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But not all of the more than 200 plus countries competing in the Olympics are paragons of virtue and the feeling of global solidarity and common humanity that can result from these competitions is worth much more than the virtue signaling that a boycott can accomplish.
Athletes protesting the policies or civil rights violations of their home countries from the Olympic podium would be severely punished on their return home in many countries such as China or Russia. But protesting from the podium is more than just an embarrassment to your country. It is divisive. It tells your teammates that your politics outweigh the team’s accomplishments at the games. It ruptures the sense of solidarity that sports competitions are intended to create.
Jesse Owens had considered boycotting the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a protest against Hitler’s fascist regime as well as a stand against segregation and Jim Crow in the United States. He was eventually convinced to attend and won four gold medals (Owens claimed that Hitler shook his hand but that progressive icon President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would not). All (well at least most) Americans were proud of Owens’ accomplishments and still are.
Jesse Owens made Americans proud and did far more to advance the civil rights of the black community than would Ms. Berry’s petulant protests should she ever get to the Olympic podium.
From Jesse Owens’ Olympic gold to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, sports competitions have done a lot to overcome the racism and prejudice that pervaded America in the first half of the twentieth century. And Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson were not on their respective teams as tokens of a minority race. They made the teams because they excelled at their sports. Owens tied the world record for the 100-yard dash in high school and broke four world records in a 45-minute period at a track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Before being called up to the majors, Jackie Robinson was the only Negro in the minor leagues but was the minor league’s MVP with a .349 batting average and a .985 fielding percentage.
Sports competition is a meritocracy and the big leagues like MLB, NFL and NBA are the ultimate meritocracies. If you can help the team win and help to fill up the stadiums and raise TV ratings you will be given the opportunity no matter your race or creed. And professional teams across the country are chock full of minority players. But politics, generally, was kept off the field.
That changed when San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. He was being faithful (at least in his mind) to his convictions, but he was betraying the trust of his teammates, his team and his fans. His kneeling for social justice placed a burden on his teammates. Should they join him? If they didn’t join him would people think they were bigots? Soon the game was secondary to the kneeling. Progressives praised Kaepernick, President Trump condemned him. Players hid in their locker rooms to avoid the dilemma Kaepernick had put them in.
This is the opposite of what sports is meant to be. Colin Kaepernick is free, as is any American, to express his beliefs on his own time. But on the field his duty is to his team, his teammates and to his fans that paid their hard-earned money to watch a football game and not a political protest.
Now, Kaepernick’s social justice agenda has infected, not just the NFL, but all of professional sports in America. NBA stadiums are festooned with Black Lives Matter flags. Major League Baseball moves the All-Star Game from Atlanta because of an election law passed by the Georgia legislature. The NFL is dedicating a quarter of a billion dollars to social justice causes over the next ten years in the hope that the social justice warriors will focus their anger elsewhere.
Sports used to be an oasis. An oasis where people could put aside their daily worries and concerns and give themselves up to the sports competition. Where blacks and whites cast aside their racial identities and became Cowboy fans, Philly Phanatics and Cheeseheads. Now one of the last respites from constant divisive politics has been taken from us.
Thanks a lot!