Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity


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American Football and Politics

This article written by Vann R. Newkirk II explores a hot button topic in today’s sporting climate which I find extremely fascinating. The central theme of the piece is in regards to how football is the most popular sport in the United States and is seen as a platform for common ground between sports and politics in American society. Interestingly enough, the author feels as though the perceived image of the peaceful divide between football and politics is a farce and has been exposed by recent events such as the Colin Kaepernick protest and the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election to office.

As football has become a fully integrated sport with a large percentage of African American athletes, the one compromise was that the sport itself would not extend into politics. Sports can be seen as an escape from the issues on the outside and any type of connection to political issues in particular can affect the product on the field or the enjoyment one gets from it. In a nutshell, sport has become much more commercialized than it once was and this almost makes it a necessity to separate it completely from any form of politics. Moreover, “the popular appeal of sport increased significantly during the course of the twentieth century (and)…its closer links with the corporate world over this period transformed the institution of sport” (Smart, 2007). Furthermore, from some people’s perspective, “sport is seen to be nothing more than just another generic business enterprise subject to the usual government regulations, market pressures and customer demands” (Smith & Stewart, 2010). There is a lot of money at stake when it comes to the NFL and its primary stakeholders will go to great lengths to ensure that controversy is mitigated as much as possible. One of the most interesting points brought up within the article is how football has replaced religion as the most popular social activity in the American South. In a sense, “southern sports teams embrace the notion that attendance and participation by competitors and fans alike have made the activity, especially collegiate football, the new locus of religion passion” (Lewis, 2013). As total attention has shifted to the sport, every small issue within its ecosystem begins to become more and more magnified. Football is so much more than just the product on the field these days – it is something that completely consumes American life. There is a constant news cycle that comes with the NFL as there are major stories and developments every day of the year essentially. The amount of reverence the league has because of its constant action and developing issues is astounding. The divide between football and politics which had lasted for so long was so stark. The seemingly inconspicuous act of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner sent ripples through not only the NFL, but American society in general because of the established separation between football and politics. The election of Donald Trump further compounded the growing unrest as Trump chose to call out Kaepernick and anyone else who chose to support his cause and join the protest. At the end of the day, the NFL has so much power within American culture and over time, they should be able to sweep the issue of political unrest creeping into the sport under the rug.  However, Kaepernick’s actions helped reveal a side of the NFL that we were not privy to before. Several players chose to use their platform as an opportunity to speak out and drive potential change within society. In my humble opinion, any player who chooses to break the norms and make a stand is extremely brave and deserve respect. It takes courage to stand in the face of criticism and fight for what you believe in.

From a personal perspective, the aftermath of the NFL political drama was very surprising to me and made me critically evaluate why people support the NFL and its member teams. As an ardent fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team located in the deep South, I was able to witness firsthand a large contingent of fans who were extremely upset with the team after anthem protests in Week 3’s game against the Baltimore Ravens. During the national anthem before the game, a substantial portion of Jaguars players took a knee during the anthem while most of the other players stood and locked arms. Additionally, the team’s owner Shad Khan, chose to be on the sideline and lock arms with the players as well in an act of solidarity. I was moved by this action and thought it was really empowering. Khan, originally from Pakistan, was a known supporter of Donald Trump during his campaign and donated a substantial amount of money to his campaign. For him to stand in the face of Trump and admit that his stance on the political debate was not just was a major step for social justice in my view. However, as a result of the team’s protest, a plethora of fans and supporters of the team vocally expressed displeasure of the incidents that occurred before the game. I witnessed several accounts of people posting on the team’s Facebook or Twitter accounts proclaiming that they were surrendering their season tickets and not following the team until they apologize for their actions. Furthermore, even Jacksonville’s mayor Lenny Curry said “I stand and cover my heart for the pledge and anthem…I think it’s stupid to do otherwise” (DiRocco, 2017). I was surprised by this backlash and did not realize the amount of people that were so against these peaceful protests.

While I do understand that political issues within the realm of the NFL are a very controversial topic, I personally feel as though the players have the right to express themselves however way they wish to. Consequently, it was a shock to the system to see so many Jaguars fans making such strong claims following the team’s protest. This entire event made me re-think about the essence of sport and the reasons behind people’s support for players or teams. The motivation behind fan support varies a great deal and some people can be swayed by certain actions. In this case, the political protests disrupted the core values of some fans and forced them to re-evaluate their allegiances. While I cannot relate to these feelings, I do understand their perspective in a sense. Fandom can be fickle – especially when politics enter the framework.

Discussion Questions to Consider:

  • If political protests continue to persist during NFL games, will the league become less popular in the realm of American sports?
  • What can be done by NFL owners and other stakeholders (sponsors, community partners, etc.) to mitigate the outside pressure while keeping players happy at the same time?
  • Is there a particular reason why political protests have not occurred as frequently in NCAA Football as they have in the NFL? Does average age of athlete play a factor?
  • Is Colin Kaepernick not an NFL roster today because of his lack of ability or because of the perceived distractions or issues owners/general managers feel he would bring to a team?
  • What steps can NFL owners take to find common ground with the players and eliminate the need for unrest between the two parties?

References

DiRocco, M. (2017, September 26). Jacksonville mayor: Players’ decision to kneel for anthem ‘stupid’. Retrieved October 31, 2017, from http://www.espn.com/blog/jacksonville-jaguars/post/_/id/22695/jacksonville-mayor-players-decision-to-kneel-for-anthem-stupid

Lewis, T. T. (2013). Religious rhetoric in southern college football: New uses for religious metaphors. Southern Communication Journal, 78(3), 202-214.

Smart, B. (2007). Not playing around: global capitalism, modern sport and consumer culture. The Author(s) Jorunal, 7(2), 113-134.

Smith, A. C., & Stewart, B. (2010). The special features of sport: A critical revisit. Sport Management Review, 13(1), 1-13.

Accompanying content:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXTTnkmgS1A – Example of Jaguars fan(s) speaking out following the protests in London

https://www.news4jax.com/news/local/jacksonville/anthem-protest-divides-jacksonville-jaguars-fans – Further examples of Jaguars fans actions and thoughts following the team’s protest