At least until recently, sport used to be one of the last institutions that could transcend all the divisions in society. People from all walks of life, of all ages, background and persuasions could take a break from the ordinary and unite in a shared enjoyment of the spectacle and admiration of athleticism, skill and sportsmanship. Not that politics never encroached on sport, from Berlin and Moscow Olympic Games to more individual displays, like black power salutes by African-American athletes or protests against Russian anti-gay laws at the Sochi Winter Olympics. But by and large sport gave everyone the same joy and brought people together cheering for the same team or for their nation, while also at the same time breaking down barriers between peoples and countries through their shared appreciation for the spectacle and the spirit. Watch “Invictus”, a wonderful movie with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, for a true story that illustrates the power of sport to cross divides. Indeed, watch the Olympic Games or the Soccer World Cup to see billions of people united by the enchantment of the competition.
But politics eventually poisons everything. The left has always eschewed the separation between personal and political: as their saying goes, personal is political. This in turn is merely a modern echo of Marx’s original conviction that everything in life that surrounds us is a reflection and an embodiment of the economic relationship between the oppressor minority and the oppressed and exploited majority. So there is no and can be no refuge. While some on the left, like Noam Chomsky, consider sport and other mass entertainment to be new forms of “opium of the people” – or bread and circuses – used by the capitalists to distract the masses from their plight, others, in the Gramsci/Frankfurt School tradition of “the long march through the institutions”, see sport like any other medium that can be used to spread the message and influence the public opinion. Hence the recent trajectory of Big Sport becoming more and more woke, from “taking the knee” to the national anthem, through transgender athletes dominating women’s sports, to teams boycotting politicians and localities they don’t approve of (and in Australian context, the Israel Folau saga). In the United States at least, this has led to a decline in attendance and viewership, as a significant proportion of fans is increasingly feeling preached at, disrespected and insulted by the sport establishment that puts premium on their “social responsibility” to be politically active and vocal above the need to engage and entertain as many people as possible.
While Sports Inc are big on freedom of speech when defending – and lionising – people like Colin Kaepernick and others, the events of the past few days have shown this posture to be a hypocritical sham, with the American NBA forcing apologies from an official who dared to express his support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. Forget about free speech or standing up for all that’s good in the world when the Chinese money is at stake. Even spectators have been ejected or had their signs confiscated at the basketball games between American and Chinese teams played in America for daring to express similar sentiments. It’s quite telling that the American world of sport doesn’t care if it insults and foregoes the patronage of the conservative half of their own population, but instantly spring to action to defend the feelings of Chinese communists and the lucrative contracts that flow from it.
Personally, I don’t care about sport, but for the sake of others, the silent spectating majority, I would dearly love if all the politics could just piss off and leave the athletes to play and spectators to enjoy the display. But if we are going to live in a brave new world where sport is used as another mean of social engineering and an extra megaphone for preaching the politically correct gospel to the masses, then let’s either have an even playing field or let’s lay to rest the myth of the enlightened sport. As Clay Travis said, ” The woke era of the @nba is now officially dead. No player or coach was willing to stand up to a communist dictatorship rife with human rights violations because it threatened their money. That renders all of their political opinions worthless going forward. Absolute cowards.”