Back on May 14, I wrote about five sports industry trends that would likely be accelerated by the pandemic. Among these was the politicization of sports and an increasing partisan divide in the US. I placed this idea at the bottom of my list, feeling it was the most abstract and hard to predict. Eleven days later, George Floyd was murdered. The protests and national tension that followed further solidified our already polarized politics, but there wasn’t too much backlash as the sports world reacted, save the predictable internet trolls mocking the new verbiage on the back of NBA jerseys and the controversy over the Bubba Wallace “noose” incident in NASCAR.
But I guess it was a matter of time, as this week showed. Most visible, of course, were the striking (not boycotting!) NBA players, with the ripple effects through the WNBA, MLB, MLS, and (after some missteps) the NHL. Right wing critics mocked the athletes, suggesting that no one else has the luxury to skip work; Jared Kushner said he would reach out to Lebron James to promote meaningful action rather than symbolic protest. Friendly reminder that Lebron has organized a massive voter-turnout movement and has generally been a leader in charity and community support throughout his career.
There was also a less visible partisan moment last night, during the Republican National Convention. (To be clear: less visible in terms of the attention it has garnered vs. the player walkouts). There was a brief video montage dedicated to sports, heavy on clips of teams visiting the Trump White House, American flags, and so forth. It would appear that the party of “shut up and dribble,” “stick to sports,” and “don’t politicize sports” has now entered the ring. The montage was followed by UFC president Dana White delivering a bellowing endorsement of President Trump and the important steps that Trump had taken to bring back sports and so on. As far as I can tell, other than telling governors that they should allow sports to come back, I don’t think the administration did much. The leagues get all credit. Furthermore, the successful return of sports has come on the back of approaches that run completely counter to national pandemic policy (testing, testing, testing, bubbles, and all that). Finally, White repeated the false claim that the UFC was the first sport to return. It was actually professional rodeo. In fairness to White, I made the same mistake on the blog (but I did correct myself).
So where does that leave things? I am thinking about two questions.
- Does any of this have an impact on politics? I find it hard to believe that there are any truly undecided voters at this point in time. But perhaps that is taking too short a view of the matter. The messaging on the back of NBA jerseys, the postponed games: they probably aren’t making a major impact on the opinions of adult voters. But what about the kids? My son is still too young, but I imagine there have been a whole slate of conversations in households with young fans. “Why aren’t they playing tonight?” can open a lot of doors. Significant change is generational; it may be many years before we appreciate the impact of this moment. (It certainly took decades to appreciate the political actions of John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Muhammad Ali.)
- Does any of this have an impact on sports in the longterm? I realize this is my lane, but my answer is: I’m not sure. Probably not. I expect we’ll find new equilibriums: for every fan turned off by what’s going on, there will be someone who more fully embraces sports. We still really like watching people do amazing things, this is a human given that we can’t escape. And sports are still inherently meaningless, a platform for the values and lessons consumers and athletes alike choose to imbue them with. So will things be different? Sure, nothing ever stays the same (Heraclitus told us this a couple millennia back). But I don’t think they are going anywhere, nor will the power, market share, or influence of the American leagues be significantly impacted in the near future. But we’ll see.