For many, sports are an escape. This attitude aligns with the ideals of American meritocracy, as the media often spotlights hoop dreams, and how athletes from low-income families are able to work hard and make it big. Sports documentaries highlighting the perseverance of sport in war-torn countries, run down concrete courts in low-income urban areas, or even clips of children pick up soccer games with troops in the background go along with this view as well. Sports for both participants and fans can, of course, be a place where personal dilemmas and dangerous realities can and are often placed aside. Nonetheless, this perspective can lead some to accept the false belief that sports are apolitical.
Many view sports as a platform of purity that should be distinctly separated from any political messages or issues. Examples of this attitude can be observed in the critique of BlackLivesMatter shirts worn by NBA stars last year, or even more historically the backlash against John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The backlash against these professional athletes gives cause to pause to understand how the sport can function as a media stage as some messages are allowed and others shunned. It’s a vehicle which athletes, when allowed, and professional leagues can use in order to promote discussion and lend support to certain issues.
A recent example of sports being used effectively as a tool can be summarized in the Bush administration’s involvement with the NFL and MLB post-9/11. The 9/11 attacks continue to be a tragic and emotionally salient part of American history. A point when many Americans realized the potential of war on US soil. The attacks helped give reason for the administration to pass several new policies under a climate of American fear to ensure security. Tensions were high and Americans were looking for a place to unite. This is where sports came in.
It can be argued that during this period the Bush administrated utilized both the NFL and MLB’s statuses’ as popular media stages influence public interest and support for the new War on Terror. The first example of this can be observed during Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, when President Bush threw out the first pitch. It was a symbolic gesture of American strength in the emotional backdrop of the recent crisis-ridden New York City. This involvement developed further with time as the NFL and MLB partnered to embed military commercials during games, inserted troops visually on the field, sponsored military charities, sold military-themed merchandise and even allowed camouflage-themed uniforms on players. The partnership has continued into today as the militarism of sport in the US is visually and more concretely paralleled which is generally accepted by the public without bias.
Being thankful for American military service and sacrifice is something that all Americans should be grateful for. Nonetheless, we should also critique the now close relationship with sport and government to understand how public interest can be harnessed for both political power and profit. For the Bush administration its aim was to garner public support, but for professional leagues, the goal was to manipulate the military brand to profit off merchandise and event sales. Many of which may not continue to help the military and veterans.