Trump May Be Gone But The Sports World’s Systemic Problems Are Still Here

Sports and politics are inextricably linked, we can't let the lessons of the last four years go to dust.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here

“Exciting” may not be the best word to describe how this week, the week of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, feels for most Americans. “Head-to-toe relief” might be more accurate, or simply “allowing an ounce of hope.” If Biden is far from representing the complete overhaul American politics so self-evidently need, there has at least already been a nominal acknowledgement from his administration of the personhood of all people within the United States. In lieu of the violent white supremacist rhetoric we’ve become accustomed to over the past four years, that’s an improvement. 

The bar is low, but we’ve cleared it; an earned, overdue exhale is in order.

Hopefully, if you’ve been reading this column for a few weeks (or those from any of the dozens of excellent writers that, for decades, have offered cultural and political critique of the sports world), it’s obvious why understanding the political zeitgeist is important for the informed sports fan (and vice versa). Even if you haven’t been — even if you have only the most superficial understanding of say, who Colin Kaepernick is — a mote of critical thinking will lead you to the conclusion that sports, like literally anything else, cannot be separated from their political and cultural context. Donald Trump’s presidency made that fact impossible to ignore with his continual use of professional athletes as a political cudgel, but it’s been true as long as people have played.

Trump’s use of mostly Black athletes as convenient villains for his ceaseless shit-spouting, though, has apparently sparked some nostalgia for that mythical time when sports were just sports, and you could ethically watch without thinking about anything besides the score. Such a time, of course, has never existed. Yet this week ESPN published an essay titled, “In Joe Biden’s White House, sports and politics may retreat to their own corners.” The title has little to do with the essay’s content, which mostly explores Biden’s personal history with sports and argues that his presidency will mark a return to the time when athletes saw it as an honor to visit the White House (which seems probable).

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It does vaguely incorporate the idea (based on a quote from Biden’s younger brother Francis) that Biden’s administration would like to make sports seem apolitical, stating that it “faces no easy task maneuvering sports back onto politically neutral turf” — this despite also citing Francis saying of athlete activism, “There’s nothing [the President] admires more.” Basically, according to his brother (who is, for some reason, an expert), Biden hopes sports can act as common ground — that Democrats and Republicans can get along as long as they’re both Patriots fans, or something, as though the stakes of discussing the carnage wrought by the prison-industrial complex and the drawbacks of establishing the run are roughly identical.

If the piece is a little muddled, its title is not, stating explicitly that sports and politics are intrinsically discrete entities — itself a choice seemingly designed to appeal to both “stick to sports”-spewing conservatives and liberals weary of Trumpism’s indecorous penetration of all aspects of popular culture, including sports. Both groups, the title assumes, would love to return to this imagined status quo — which was, conveniently, the sentiment that basically drove Biden’s whole campaign and its “normalcy,” “civility,” “unity” etc. 

The assumption that sports and politics can and should be discussed separately is one that internally, ESPN has had a fairly tortured relationship with; the pendulum has recently swung, in the wake of the remarkable grassroots protests against racism last year, towards more frank discussions of political issues on air. But as this essay title shows, there seems to be an underlying understanding that after a certain amount of time — after the clear, acute dangers of the Trump presidency have receded into the mealy-mouthed bureaucratic machinations we are allegedly accustomed to, perhaps — the Worldwide Leader and its competitors can go back to more or less ignoring the ways in which sports mirrors and magnifies inequalities and injustices that exist everywhere. That paying attention to them can once again be a somber exception rather than a knotty, confounding rule.

It’s an understandable impulse, given the exceptional trials of the past four years. But there’s no normalcy to go back to, no fresh start — the status quo is racism, sexism and homophobia, only implied more often than they’re said aloud. The epic scale of the problems we’re facing hasn’t really changed, and acting as though they aren’t your problem because you just want to watch the game doesn’t actually make them smaller. Superficial camaraderie with people who fundamentally believe anyone who is not like them deserves to die isn’t progress, it just makes the whole litany of terrifying, urgent problems worse.

the status quo is racism, sexism and homophobia, only implied more often than they’re said aloud

ESPN editors know that sports without politics are a fantasy — that’s why they commissioned a whole series of pieces about how teams and team owners influence elections just last year. But easing up on the rigor with which we analyze all the interconnected injustices we face is seductive for everyone; it’s been a long four years. 

We can’t let celebration cloud our vision, though — let the fact that our tenuous democracy barely worked make us feel like we can fall into old, bad habits like, say, thinking that sports are great enough to transcend their worst parts. Nationwide, Republicans are introducing bills to ban transgender athletes from youth sports, a new front in their fearmongering, bigoted culture wars. 

The NCAA, along with its conferences and member schools, is pouring money into Washington lobbying firms at an unprecedented rate as it tries to halt and counter legislation that would give college athletes rights to make money off their names and likenesses; in the first nine months of 2020, as the nation grappled with an unprecedented pandemic, the SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 combined to spend nearly $1.3 million dollars on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Those are just two obvious, current sports and politics issues; countless others have filled the lines of this column. The point is that we can’t go back, not because it’s impossible but because we’ve come too far — much, much too far to be complacent anymore.

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