By Kurt Ganapathy
Source photo in featured image: The Sun/Alex Caparros for Getty Image
“Keep politics out of football,” they demand, failing to realize that politics has been there all along. Of course, when they make that declaration, they really mean to say, “Keep your politics out of football.”
Are national anthems and flags not used for political gain? Is the presence of the military not political? Are champion athletes not paraded about by parties in power? How often do politicians attend sporting events to show how connected they are with the people? Here’s the thing though – tyrannical regimes excluded, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that. But if that’s acceptable, so is taking a knee.
Sporting arenas are among the most egalitarian places on Earth. If you have the talent and the commitment, then there isn’t much that will keep you from going the distance – not race, not religion, not social class, and certainly not political beliefs. What that creates is a truly diverse melting pot of opinions and perspectives, many of which wouldn’t have a presence in other spheres.
We don’t have to agree with the politics of sportsmen; we don’t even have to listen to any of them. But, as fans, we should recognize the fact that they exist and try to understand why they exist. Having the tables turned is a great way to learn how to do that.
One of the most poignant scenes during the wave of anthem protests came when Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle (and US Army veteran) Alejandro Villanueva stood alone for “The Star-Spangled Banner” while his teammates remained in the tunnel. His appearance in front of the cameras proved to be accidental (he wanted to get a glimpse of the flag before rejoining his teammates, but happened to be on the field when the anthem began playing). In any case, he had every right to remain standing, hand over heart.
Villanueva might have been the odd man out, but the beauty of that moment was that you could acknowledge both sides without choosing one over the other. This isn’t a binary debate where one thing can’t exist in the presence of another.
From the NFL, we’ve already moved on to La Liga for the next political clash in sport. Spain is currently a country divided, and football has not been spared. With violence erupting as Catalans voted for independence, Barcelona was left with no choice but to play at an empty Camp Nou. Over in the capital, Real Madrid fans packed the Bernabeu to raise Spanish flags and chant “long live Spain”.
Political differences are what make Barcelona vs Real Madrid – El Clasico – more than a simple football match, and the stage is set for the most tumultuous battles between the two clubs since the era of Franco. Yet, as tempers flare and chasms deepen between their fans, players from the two clubs are uniquely placed to help move the country forward peacefully.
We’ve been there before. When sports and politics intertwine at pivotal points in time, we end up with images that are etched in history. Decades from now we’ll still hear Muhammad Ali’s words against the Vietnam War. We’ll still cherish the defiance of Vera Caslavska who turned away from the Soviet flag in the aftermath of the Prague Spring. We’ll still discuss the impact of the Black Power salute delivered by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with the often forgotten Peter Norman standing in solidarity with them. And we’ll still feel irrepressible warmth when we see Francois Pienaar receiving the Webb Ellis Cup from Nelson Mandela.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between sports and politics? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.