In a number of countries, you can guess someone’s general political views based on which soccer club they support. In the States, however, many an embarrassing uncle seems to have no political compass beyond loyalty to his favorite team. The year 2014 made it hard for those folks to stay out of touch as sports became more visibly political in the US than they had been in decades.
The International Olympic Committee claims to disapprove of using the games to make political statements. In the summer of 1968, for example, it expelled 200-meter medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they saluted in solidarity with the Black liberation struggle back home in the US. The precedent did not scare the US delegation to February’s games in Sochi, which addressed Russia’s ban on “gay propaganda” by turning gay people into propaganda. Much like Black runner Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin games, three gay athletes served as pride tokens in a rival’s territory for a government that treats them like second-class citizens.
L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling finished March Madness as an April asshole when girlfriend V. Stiviano recorded the leather sugar daddy scolding her for bringing Black men to “his” games after she posted pictures of herself with various Black athletes online. Eventually, the NBA banned Sterling from the league and imposed their maximum fine of $2.5 million, a drop in the bucket for the multibillionaire and longest-running franchise owner alive. Similar to the racist, misogynistic comments on the Rutgers women’s basketball team that Don Imus vomited into 2007 airwaves, the Sterling incident reminds us that the people who profit from and are entertained by the feats of Black athletes do not necessarily respect them as people.
Daniel Snyder, owner of the D.C. area’s NFL franchise, didn’t let March slip away without taking his share of the racism spotlight. Responding to pressure to change the franchise’s branding, currently based around a colonial slur, he created the “Original Americans Foundation”, a charity that also bears the team’s offensive name. The condescending PR ploy backfired as many Native American organizations pushing for the name change responded with appropriate disgust. On the brighter side, some fans of the Cleveland Indians baseball team started removing the offensive Chief Wahoo logo from their team gear, which became known as “de-chiefing”. The year breathed new life into a decades-long campaign against names and mascots, both professional and amateur, that use racist depictions of indigenous people as primitive and violent.
The NFL grabbed some positive headlines when Missouri’s own Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted into the league. Sam was initially drafted by the St. Louis Rams. He also spent some time on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad. At the time of writing, he is a free agent. In addition to support from other players, Sam’s presence in the draft sparked humorously serious and often disappointing discussions of whether the NFL was “ready” for such a “change”.
Summer brought the FIFA World Cup live from Brazil to viewers around the globe. While record-breaking ratings showed gains in popularity among US audiences, mass demonstrations made it clear the event was much less popular in its host country. Crowds across Brazil protested corrupt and wasteful public spending on stadiums in a country where millions live in poverty and hunger. The brutal response involved São Paolo cops appearing at protests dressed like they had come from police-state dystopias like Robocop’s Detroit or contemporary St. Louis County. Preparations for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have contributed to the discontent. (Surprisingly, no one demanded the US apologize for sending Pitbull.)
An unfortunate number of media outlets ignored the protests, even when they happened on the field itself. During the opening ceremonies, three Brazilian children of different ethnicities released doves. As the birds flew off, a Guaraní 13-year-old named Werá Jeguaka Mirim turned the theatrical image of racial harmony into an indictment of 21st-century colonialism with a banner demanding Brazil honor its earlier promises of recognizing tribal lands. Guess which part the sports stations left out.
Back in 2012, Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was murdered by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, a wannabe cop with no law-enforcement qualifications beyond his habit of racial profiling and domestic abuse. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi organized a response, one of numerous instances in which Black LGBT women have worked hard to build mass movements and been erased from the story later. You know the movement as Black Lives Matter, and Rams fans brought its clear demand to the Edward Jones Dome on banners they displayed during a game. They also added “on and off the field”, highlighting how American sports moguls and their audiences treat Black athletes as consumable entertainment and not human beings.
St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch, son of a police officer, announced in Ǹovember that the state would not indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson to stand trial for killing Michael Brown. When records of indictment proceedings went public, legal professionals questioned whether McCulloch and his colleagues had conducted themselves appropriately in presenting relevant laws and testimony to the grand jury.
At their next game, some Rams players responded to the horrifying news by making the iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture as they took to the field. Players on the D.C. team mentioned earlier had done the same in August. Jeff Roorda, “business manager” for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, responded with anger about athletes expressing opinions on the field even after it took federal intervention to force the publicly-employed members of his “union” to stop wearing pro-Darren Wilson bracelets while in uniform. While the franchise stopped short of endorsement, they supported the players and set the record straight when police chief Jon Belmar falsely claimed the Rams had “apologized”.
Towards the year’s end, NBA players took the court for warm-ups in shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe” in honor of Eric Garner, a Staten Island father choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. In California, Mendocino High students were banned from the Fort Bragg High School basketball tournament for wearing the shirts. A team was assembled of boys who accepted the ruling, but not enough of the girls would give up so easily. Visibility for politics in sports has continued rising into 2015, hopefully engaging fans in grassroots efforts to level the playing field.
Sam Rogers retired from his athletic career after an improbably successful T-ball game. He enjoys watching hockey and once played Madden at a friend’s house.