The politics of sports

Locker Room Talk

Related Posts

It would be hard to find something that I worship more than the Cubs and despise more than Donald Trump. Somewhere, lurking on my Facebook feed, there is a humiliating video of me screaming after the Cubs’ October 2016 World Series win. A little more stalking would also reveal an impassioned post about bigotry versus hope after Donald Trump’s inauguration a few months later — don’t blame me; I was emotional.

This past summer, both worlds collided on my Instagram, of all places. I was scrolling through my feed when I came across a picture of the team smiling behind a grinning Trump, holding a No. 45 presidential Cubs jersey.

I was upset. The fact that my favorite players could casually stand next to a man who had spent the past year instigating fear and validating hatred was infuriating.

I was also naïve.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Ricketts family, which owns the Cubs, donated upward of $1 million to a pro-Trump super PAC during his presidential campaign. A little more than a week after the election, President-elect Trump even met with co-owner Todd Ricketts, whom he later named as his pick for deputy commerce secretary, though Ricketts ended up withdrawing from consideration.

As much as I hate to admit it, Trump’s policies complemented the Ricketts’ wealth, and the family’s financial support complemented Trump’s brashness.

Trump campaigned on a doctrine of the “classic,” rugged, white American. Those who did not fall within these rigid borders — women, minorities, liberals — were the losers.

Now more than a year into the presidency, Trump’s brashness has emerged within a primal, binary analogy to the world of sports: There are clear winners and losers. For Trump to win, others must lose. And for Trump to remain victorious, his privileged narrative of being “American” must persist.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the similarities between Trump’s view of sports and George Orwell’s 1945 essay “The Sporting Spirit.”

Orwell saw the rise in professional sports as inextricably linked to a rise in nationalism, warning that competition instills animosity and promotes sectionalism. For Orwell, the idea that sports provide opportunities for spectators to identify within a greater fandom is a fallacy that exists as a pretense to allow for violence when people act outside of this predetermined nationalism.

At no time was this better illustrated than during the NFL protests. As racism was disguised as false patriotism, Black players who did not consent to police oppression and violence in America were alienated and deemed undeserving of protesting an American symbol.

The use of sports as a proxy for nationalism and the issue of players tethered to one narrative extend past the NFL’s microcosm.

It was present when Trump childishly demanded thanks from the three UCLA basketball players who were arrested in China and later tweeted that he “should have left them in jail” after LaVar Ball rebuked Trump’s role in the intervention.

It was present in Donald Trump Jr.’s bullying of figure skater Adam Rippon before the Olympics after Rippon expressed disappointment over Vice President Mike Pence’s stance on LGBTQ+ policies.

It was present in the Twitter storm of insults aimed at Lindsey Vonn, celebrating her lack of a first-place finish after Vonn publicly declared that she would not visit a Trump White House.

It was present when Laura Ingraham argued that sports and politics are separate, and that LeBron James should “shut up and dribble.”

Orwell predicted this: He knew that the significance was not in “the behavior of the players, but the attitude of the spectators.” That is, those who preach from their Twitter bully pulpits, who have talk shows and who buy tickets.

The power and responsibility to define the face of sports lie in the hands of fans like you and me. Professional athletes are the advocates of change whom we can call into action on the battlefield to march toward progress.

Late in the presidential campaign, a videotape was released showing Donald Trump bragging about using his celebrity to do “anything” to women. He excused his lewd comments as “locker room talk.” He was wrong on multiple accounts.

One: Women won’t let him do anything. Two: His celebrity is going to catch up to him (I’m banking on you, Robert Mueller). Three: Locker rooms and athletes in them are agents of change, and they won’t stand for bigotry.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. These conversations about what we expect from our athletes will be uncomfortable, and we will oftentimes reach different conclusions. In my final words of this “Locker Room Talk” column, I hope you’ve seen that it is important to be aware of not only the potential social consequences of sports, but more importantly their unbridled ability to effect change.

Alicia Sadowski writes the Thursday column about the intersection of sports and politics. Contact her at [email protected]