February 1, 2021
A number of years ago I published an article in a national magazine on the recruitment of international student-athletes to American colleges and universities.* Given the nature of the article, I wasn't able to focus on the role of politics in athletics as much as I would have liked, but the subject was still present if well below the surface. More than once, however, in my own experience as a college recruiter, I had seen the dream of some faraway student to study and compete at my school dashed due to some international political snit.
The sporting world, of course, is no stranger to politics. Our presidents throw out first pitches at ballgames and, not infrequently, our top athletes leverage their stardom into a political career.
The Olympiad, with its staggeringly long history, has always been more about pitting nation against nation than it has been about athletic excellence. More recently, the 1936 Olympiad in Nazi Germany was all about a regime bringing about a master race. An even more recent example would be the U.S. boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics in Russia – a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the politicization of sport in our own culture is the playing of the national anthem before athletic contests begin, as though glorifying our American polity is somehow connected to the competition about to be engaged (pretty regularly anymore, whenever I hear the national anthem, regardless of the circumstance, I fully expect to hear someone shout out "play ball" at its conclusion). Should that competition be a major one, too – a national championship, say – the winning team will be invited to visit the White House to be praised by the Sports Fan-in-Chief. Conversely, refusing that invitation, as some sports teams have done, is another way to make a political statement.
Speaking of that Sports Fan-in-Chief, we've had no lack of athletes occupying the Oval Office, either, with Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan all former football players. Even George W. Bush can edge into that category as a former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.
In a somewhat humorous vein one could even say that sport lies at the very heart of our politics. Whereas in Great Britain and elsewhere candidates "stand" for office, in the U.S. we "run" for office and our political contests are almost always described as "races."
Less humorously certainly, we recall Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racism in America. Lots of knees followed after that, along with much heated discussion, a few legal actions and, pretty much, the loss of Kaepernick's football career. As recently as this past year our former president pressured various sporting outlets – from collegiate to professional – to ignore the pandemic and get on with the contests.
What prompted me to mull over this notion is that there is, now, an even more interesting prospect on the horizon for politics to enter the sporting world, a pot, as it were, sitting on the stove at a low simmer. Whether or not it will boil over remains to be seen.
As many sports fans know, the Chicago Cubs are owned by Todd Ricketts and the Ricketts family. What most don't know is that Ricketts is the chief financial officer of the Republican National Committee AND the head of Donald Trump's campaign financing outfit.
With Trump having disgraced himself by trying to overthrow the government, it remains to be seen whether or not the Ricketts family can escape, in the eyes of Cub fans, being tarred by the same brush sweeping over '45.
Of course Cub fans are a loyal bunch. They are, however, being Chicagoans, in large part a Democratic bunch. There's the rub. Will someone, at some point, make the – in print, social media – connection between the Cubs' owner and the Insurrectionist-in-Chief? Will that make a difference? Will there be calls for a boycott? That president is gone and, as we all know, memories are short.
Social media, however, keeps memories alive.
*International Educator, V.5, No.3, 1996
G.K. Wuori ©2021
Photoillustration by the author