Politics and sport

Funny how political topics rotate, isn’t it ?  When I was younger, the politics v sport debate was about the South Africa.  The British establishment were happy to play against their segregated teams for years, claiming this did not show any approval of apartheid. As a progressive student, but a fan of rugby and cricket, I tried to look the other way, but in the end it wasn’t possible, particularly when the South African authorities wanted to pick the England side. Peter Oborne*’s book “Basil Oliviera” reveals rather more than we knew at the time about the back room manoeuvring, and is pretty clear who was mixing politics and sport, and it wasn’t Guardian journalists or Welsh councillors.

And now we have the knee bending, and President Trump says that any sportsman who uses the playing of the US National Anthem to make a political point should be fired.  Well, he actually says more than that, and you’ll know what, but let’s leave it there. I will add the normal progressive spluttering here – how absurd that he can dodge the draft, how ironic that he can support those carrying the Confederate flag, whilst reading lectures on patriotism.  And a man whose only qualification for public office is his wealth can claim that prosperity disqualifies others from comment.

Unless you are a very lucky young black man in America, the oppressive behaviour of police must be ever-present. You will have friends in gaol, you will know of black people shot by police officers with little or no cause.  The idea that you must celebrate the greatness of your nation whilst this is going on must be hard to bear, and athletic prowess gives you a platform to express your view.  It’s the wrong time to say ‘you’re no political expert’ – this is not a minor political topic, a change in tax codes, a new education law.  It’s friends and family being shot, by the authorities, without effective redress, for heaven’s sake.

So, let’s be clear. I’m no Republican apologist.  One, Trump is a disgrace. Two, there is a major problem of police brutality in the USA. Three, the young footballers have a constitutional right to free speech, and have made their point with calmness and dignity.

Can I, however, throw a grenade into the room here ? I said in my blog introductory page that for me the point of writing is to clarify – or even muddle – my own views.  So, then, what would we say if the young footballers were white supremacists who gave the Hitler salute at the beginning of their match ?  The constitutional right is the same, isn’t it ? The England football team gave the Nazi salute when they played in Berlin in 1938 – are we comfortable with that ?

A way forward.  It is not possible to take politics out of sport, but there may be ways of disinfecting it.  For example, why do we play anthems at matches ?  It’s as if it has increased in recent years: notice how the Olympics, overtly awarded to cities not countries, start with a flag parade. To be fair, that’s been going on for decades.  In fact, you may feel there is a case of sorts to be made for important international events to have flags and anthems – not for me, but there you go – but why do Americans have it for internal club fixtures ? I know they call their NFC and baseball finals “the world championships”, but they aren’t, are they ?  And the Armistice Day poppies that the UK’s home country football teams wear – when did that start ?  Wouldn’t it be better for footballers to make a donation to charities for ex-service personnel (or, better, work with the Invictus Games, or promise to supplement donations by fans ?). What would happen to someone who wore the white poppy, used to lament the dead of all sides and all wars ?   As it stands, the exercise is used as a piece of right wing propaganda, half ‘Bulldog Britain’, half xenophobia; the effect on a minority of fans is palpable.  German fans – and players, all of them – protested against nationalist elements when they saw them in the Czech Republic. English fans sing “The Dam Busters”.

Of course, the best way to take politics out of American Football would be for the police to stop shooting black people. Maybe an extreme proposal.


* Former political editor of the Daily Mail, so hardly a teenage Trot.

Part of the business plan ?

What are we to make of the recent decision to withdraw the licence for Uber, the digital minicab company, to operate in London ?  As soon as the decision was announced, the two predictable sides – Roundheads and Cavaliers – saddled up and rushed to the battlefield.  One side said that Uber was a terrible thing, interfering with an effective public and taxi system using exploited staff on the end of a computer programme that squeezed money out of customers when they were most at need.  Others said that the black cab system was out-dated and expensive, and often wasn’t around when you needed them, or wouldn’t go where you wanted them to go (especially, the proverbial south-of-the-river).

Firstly, let’s note that Uber were not stopped because of Luddism or taxi monopoly. The reason for the decision was that they had failed to help the police investigating sexual assaults on passengers: not just once, but more than 40 times.  But the debate needs to be had.  Technology does move on, and the potential of just popping an address into your mobile phone to get a taxi immediately – one that will, via satnav, know exactly where you want to go – is obvious.  Customers love the service – apparently half a million have signed an on-line petition in favour of the company.  Some drivers like the freedom to log on or off, but on the other hand (or even the same hand – it’s not a zero sum activity) many would no doubt welcome a pension, or sick pay.  If Uber (i.e. its users via charges) doesn’t pay for them, someone else will*.  There is a legal case at the moment suggesting that Uber should pay VAT, rather than pretending it is some federation of independent traders.  And who can defend managers concealing violent criminals from the police ?

Move on a moment. Amazon is a superb service. Any book I want, however obscure and even out of print, can be supplied to my doormat in a day or so.  Lots of other products too, but let’s stick with books.  However, they evade tax (see blog May 26 2013; it’s been going on a while) and treat staff badly.  I use Amazon often, and swallow when I notice my bank account has been deducted for an ‘international payment’ between here and Daventry, or Doncaster, or Manchester.  And then there is Google, which I use every day, and often.  Twitter sometimes tells us of the trifling royalties – pennies and cents – Spotify pays to the creative people without whom it would have no business.  Airbnb had a turnover of £657m in the UK last year, and paid £188,000 in tax.  Ebay had a turnover of £1.6bn, and paid £1.6m in tax. That’s one-thousandth of their revenue.

Here’s my point. One group says these are companies that show the future of the digital economy, offer great advantages to consumers and users, and they are right. The sort of people who say they are appalling monsters who should be banned, the sort of people I have consorted with politically most of my life, are not only wrong, but have no chance of winning.  But why cannot we have the advantages of the new economy, whilst staff are well paid and looked after, and whilst the companies make the appropriate contribution to public funds – to the schools, roads, law and health care they use and need ? As a tweet asked plaintively, “is being an arsehole an essential part of the business plan ?”. If these companies cannot exist without exploiting staff, stiffing governments and hiding from the law, then they are not viable businesses.  But if they can, they should, and must be made to.


* interestingly, this is the mode of thinking that is thought to be very market-driven, up-to-date and realistic in relation to university fees.  If students don’t pay, we are told, how unjust that the rest of us will have to.