This past year has seen the unofficial barrier between sports and politics vanish entirely. For decades, the consensus in American culture has been that sports must be viewed as an escape from the seriousness of the outside world. History has seen sporadic interaction between the two, such as the raised fists of American athletes during the 1968 Olympic Games and the symbolism of Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King’s breakthrough for their respective minority communities. But in 2017, sporadic interaction has turned to constant interaction, and it is now the norm in American culture.
How did we get here? Well, here’s a quick history lesson. As progressivism has aimed to achieve true equality in American society over time, there are are always going to be those who feel as if progressive policies take over the world they were accustomed to living in beforehand. When women gained the right to vote, there was a fair share of men who felt they were pushed to the side. When African-Americans were granted equal employment opportunities by law, there were plenty of white folks who were furious their jobs had been taken away. When President Obama won the 2008 Election, there were millions of conservatives who could not believe the power minority voters now held in America. The 2008 Election was viewed by many as the beginning of the end for true conservatism – an African-American president with progressive policies had taken office with a Democratic Congress. The Tea Party formed at the grassroots level to mobilize Republicans and bring back a populist and conservative appeal among Republicans. In 2016, the increased polarization between progressive and conservative minds reached its climax with the election of Donald Trump.
Trump represents everything the Tea Party had hoped for: anti-establishment, conservatism, and a bit of political radicalization. As President, Trump’s choice of language and insensitivity at fairly sensitive times has strengthened the racial divide between conservatives and progressives. His unique, vulgar, and unpresidential behavior has created an unprecedented and volatile political climate in America. Regardless of which side you are on, there is no denying that his behavior as President has stimulated arguments over race in society. Whether you think Trump is a full on racist or you think liberals are overly sensitive snowflakes, there is no doubt that the behavior of our President has created this climate. Included in this unprecedented political climate has been the role of politics interfering with nearly every aspect of society, and yes, that includes sports. Oh boy, has it included sports.
For some professional leagues, the role of politics in their sport has been disastrous to business. In the NFL, political action and speech among players, owners, and the league has been a chaotic nightmare to manage. It all started last year when Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality among minority races. But this past season the controversy truly spiraled into a whirlwind. President Trump’s argument that NFL owners should fire players who kneel, by referring to the peaceful protestors as “sons of bitches” stimulated a wave of nationalism and anti-player protests among his white, conservative base. Well, guess who watches (or used to watch) plenty of NFL games? Yep, that exact same white, conservative base that President Trump has now riled up against the players. It also riled up the same players he referred to as “sons of bitches,” leading to exponentially more player protests in the following weeks. The first weekend after the President’s remarks led to the unofficial conjunction of sports and politics in American society.
The NFL has had a past few months to forget. Ratings have dropped each week, including a 9% drop in early December games compared to last year. Sponsors like Papa John’s are expressing legitimate concerns publicly over the politically-driven ratings drop, owners have flip-flopped between their support for President Trump or their players, and Roger Goodell has no idea what the hell he should do to resolve it.
In fairness, the basic structure of sports leagues is set up for political conflict, especially in the political climate of Trump’s presidency. White owners who are mega-rich and overwhelmingly white and conservative employ players who are overwhelmingly African-American liberals, many of whom grew up in extremely poor inner cities. If politics were to ever get involved, as they did this past year, this structure is representative of fireworks on the verge of exploding. And that explosive sure went off for the Houston Texans when owner Bob McNair suggested the league needs to take more authority over the players by saying, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Yikes.
While the NFL has struggled mightily, the role of politics has led to a fairly conflict-free year in the NBA. By no means has the NBA avoided political conflict because they have avoided politics altogether. In fact, the league, coaches, and players have done just the opposite. In fact, the NBA’s two most marketable stars directly addressed the President himself this past year. Stephen Curry announced he isn’t visiting the White House to celebrate the Warriors’ championship, and LeBron James tweeted at the President that he is a “bum.” Coaches Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Stan Van Gundy, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban each have had a series of political rants to reporters, all of which include no shortage of harsh criticisms and insults to the President.
How has the NBA taken such a one-sided stance in such a divisive political climate, yet seen almost no effects on their fans, sponsors, and ultimately their bottom line? To start, according a 538 study, the NBA has an extremely left-leaning fan base, especially in comparison to other leagues. Part of this is because of the NBA’s consistent display of progressive policies and messages. For years the NBA has been the most progressive professional sports league, and it hasn’t even been close. Jason Collins played with the Brooklyn Nets in 2014 to become the first openly gay professional athlete in America’s four major sports. The NBA has been ahead of other leagues in terms of employing female assistant coaches, journalists, and referees. In 2014, dozens of players warmed up in shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe,” recalling the message African-American Eric Garner spoke as police officers choked him to death. That same summer, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade kicked off the ESPY’s with a somber message for unity and acceptance. For years, NBA athletes, teams, and the league have symbolized progressivism and equality.
The NBA also appeals to millenials more so than traditional sports of football or baseball, further solidifying the liberal market of NBA fans. (Millennials tend to overwhelmingly side with the Democratic Party.) Football has younger, softer generations fretting about concussions and safety, while baseball’s slow paced game known as “America’s pastime” has failed to fully capture the attention of young people as well. Basketball is the “in-sport,” aligned with modern hip hop, fashion, and fast-paced entertainment. From a business perspective it’s a reason to believe the NBA is the league of the future, and from a political standpoint it makes it easier to see why the NBA has such a left-leaning fan base.
Unlike the NBA, the NFL has not had a tradition of progressivism. So when Kaepernick took a knee last fall, it was seen as a shock around a league and fan base that were not prepared for it. For such a powerful political protest to take place with limited consequences, a progressive culture needs to be in place first. The NBA has had this, while the NFL has not.
Donald Trump’s presidency has challenged political norms in nearly every facet of American society. In sports, it’s now not uncommon to hear sports media outlets discussing politics on a daily basis. For better or for worse, the era of Trump has changed the way consumers take in sports. Is it better that teams and athletes are taking more active roles in society, and bringing significant meaning to their enormous platforms? Or are we better off living in the good old days of the past when sports could be seen as an escape from political conflict and partisanship? Regardless of what’s better, sports and politics are forever intertwined, and sports leagues must figure out how to make sure they are on the right side of history.
From a business perspective, three things to look forward to in 2018 are the continued impact of analytics in sports, how potential legalization of NBA betting could affect betting sites, and the emerging influence of politics in sports.
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