By Randy Chang
Many don’t realise the people kicking a ball into a net on their TV can change massive conglomerates’ profits, hate crime percentages, and war effort outcomes. The idea is, on surface, deeply unintuitive for many. However, the marriage of sports and politics is both important information and an alliance between two of my passions – thus, the following article is a backgrounder on the longstanding relationship between the physical and partisan.
Currently, approximately 155 million people in the US watch sports once a month – nearly half of the entire population. That percentage is higher than voter turnout and near US vaccination rates. When looking at countries that are more fanatic about sports – think soccer in Brazil or England, cricket in Bangladesh or India – that proportion is higher. Clearly, sports has a huge reach.
However, cultural influence isn’t equivalent to political influence. Or is it? The huge audience sports stars are given means they have a platform to speak on an eclectic array of issues, including politics. Their influence is similar to other cultural icons and celebrities: when celebrities called attention and attracted donations to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, LA Laker star Kyle Kuzma was equally vocal.
Take three different case studies as evidence of this cultural influence, that seems to transcend the specific sport, time, and even the political stance – if an athlete speaks, people listen.
The most prominent example people can instantly recall is Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who refused to stand for the national anthem. Motivated by the injustices the US had inflicted on minorities in the past, Kaepernick sparked a national conversation on racial equality. More notably, Nike made him a national symbol, printing shirts promoting Black Lives Matter and Kaepernick’s activist mentality. Many argue this nature was performative and capitalist – a broadly correct observation. But the fact remains this level of awareness and newfound profitability from promoting social causes led to millions paying attention to the problems minorities faced, and brands doing their part to promote those issues as well.
American football isn’t the only kind of football that changes fans’ individual behaviour. Mo Salah, an Egyptian soccer player of colour, was signed to Liverpool FC in 2017. His inordinate talent and charismatic nature quickly made him a hit among fans. But more importantly, that popularity translated to a 26% decrease in hate crimes within Liverpool. Whether it be people of colour bonding with the other often white Liverpool residents over Mo, or changed internal attitudes to people who looked like their favourite soccer player, there was a clear political impact to just one soccer star’s presence.
Sports and politics have been interwoven for quite some time as well. Muhammed Ali, one of the best boxers of all time, was also well known for (among other political actions) his protest of the Vietnam war. Going so far as to accept a later overturned five year jail sentence, the boxer heralded as the “world’s most famous man” today drew millions of supporters in his tour as a civil rights icon. He was highlighted by Martin Luther King Jr and gave speeches across colleges and towns in America, providing critical attention in the beginnings of the anti-war movement.
Similar to any other cultural cornerstone, sports continues to have a powerful political impact. When someone asks why sports matters, all you have to do is point them to sports’ lasting influence.