Politics in sports: Impact on the 2020 election and their place in athletics

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(WSYR-TV) — Sports and politics, for most people, were always viewed as two separate entities, but in 2020, sports and politics came together on some of the biggest stages in sports. But, will the recent initiatives have any effect on the upcoming elections?

Jordan Burns, a senior on the Colgate men’s basketball team, said, “You can’t really force anybody to do anything, but all you can do is put it in their face and make them think about it on a daily basis.”

That’s exactly what the NBA did when players were allowed to wear messages on the back of their jerseys for the final part of the season. Messages of “Black Lives Matter” and “Vote” were on display each and every night in the NBA. 

“I think the NBA, specifically, has been the leader for professional sports in so many ways,” Matt Langel, Colgate men’s basketball head coach, said. “I think this was yet another example of their commitment to their athletes, their commitment to being more than just a sport.”

On top of the messages on the back of jerseys, NBA players were using their press conferences to discuss topics that were important to them.

Burns, for the most part, did not see this as political, but instead as a push for peace.

“If it means something to you, I think you should definitely wear something to continue the conversation and make sure you’re pushing not only just an agenda, but you’re pushing for equality and love,” Burns said.

Protests in sports have existed before, but nothing like the push to vote fans have recently seen in professional sports.

“I think that one of the really interesting things that has come out of the most recent iteration of athlete activism is this impetus to focus on voter registration and election day, and we’re seeing some pretty serious change going on,” Amy Bass, professor of sports studies at Manhattanville College, said. “Athletes are now a voting bloc, and that’s different, they’ve never really been looked at that way before.”

However, will the protests and the pushes to get out and vote across professional sports spark real change?

“The NBA is about 80% African American,” Burns said. “So, I think people forget that for the African American community these are our leaders. These are the people that we turn to and we want to be and we look up to. For them to be speaking out, it makes the Black community, I think, care even more, and actually want to get out and vote, and get out and protest.”

The push by athletes for people to get out and vote seems to be having an effect, as many news outlets are predicting record voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election.

“Because all of these sports platforms are putting it out there and pushing it, it’s caused people to pay attention and actually pay attention to policies, and what people are saying, pay attention to debates,” Burns said. “I know this is the first time I’ve seen all of my friends and everybody I know watching actual presidential debates.”

The NBA’s decision to boycott games and the other leagues’ decision to follow the NBA’s lead after the shooting of Jacob Blake, has already had an effect on voting access.

“Voting venues were on the list of demands for those athletes to come back to the court,” Bass said. “So, now we’re seeing sports venues being converted into election sites, particularly in areas that tend to have dense numbers of Black voters and places where reduced polling sites has led to long waits and long lines and seems to be a barrier to democracy. So, the fact that places in Georgia, Dodger Stadium, that these are now on the table, I think it’s showing some really important change that’s taking place in the process of democracy and that’s a non-partisan thing.”

The NBA’s initiative to fully support the Black Lives Matter movement was one of the first times an entire league has taken a stance on an issue, but it certainly was not the first time politics and sports have intersected. 

Perhaps the most notable incident was at the 1968 Olympic games, Bass explains.

“You’re referring to 1968 the Mexico City Olympic Games when Tommie Smith and John Carlos created a moment of a “Black Power” action on the victory podium of the men’s 200m,” Bass said. “At that time, the United States Olympic Committee, within the course of a few days, revoked their credentials, they had to leave the Olympic Village, and they certainly left the sports page and made it onto the front page.”

The athletes at first were ridiculed for their political stances, but over time their actions were revered. 

“But, then you flash-forward, and they’re invited to the White House, finally under the Obama administration. The USOC changes that context in which they live, there’s statues, they’re in the Smithsonian. We saw the same thing happen with Muhammad Ali,” Bass said.

Colin Kaepernick also faced a similar situation when he was essentially blacklisted by the NFL for taking a knee during the National Anthem. Years later, taking a knee during the National Anthem has been accepted by many as a sign of peaceful protest, and several athletes have also taken a knee with no repercussions.

“I think people didn’t realize how much power athletes held,” Burns said. “I think now that they’re coming out and they’re speaking their mind and they’re actually telling you about what they believe. People don’t want to hear it because they’ve began to see us as entertainers in a way, and not as people who have families, who have extended families who are Black, and who go through things every single day.”

It’s time for fans to start realizing it’s about more than just what the scoreboard reads.

“Athletes don’t stop being who they are or what they believe in when they step on the track, or the court, or the pitch or the venue of their choice,” Bass said. “If we think about the ways sports operate within our society, ya know, Olympic games your entry is based on national identity, there’s flags. Sports are just inherently political. Athletes have this platform that they spend their entire lives building and they should be able to use that platform as they see fit.”

“We are all human beings and if we start at that place, I think we would be a lot better off moving forward,” Langel said.

Sports can be seen as an escape, but when the real world is unjust, we have to focus on the real issues because athletes are just as human as yourself and I.


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