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 Olivera” 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.