Don't Poke A Panda? Sport is Always Political

The Unrelenting Reality that Sport is and Always Will Be Political

Sport and politics are intertwined.  The examples are too numerous to mention.  In many instances, sport has been ahead of society at large or has been used to help unite fractured peoples.

You have instances where sport is used as a platform for political progress or dialogue.  You can point to how Nelson Mandela used rugby in the 1990’s through his relationship with François Pienaar. Of course Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics.  Muhammad Ali. Jim Brown. Tom Longboat helped change the perception of First Nations people in Canada.  

Recently, you can include Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kapernick.

You can also have instances where politics intrudes into sport.  Again, these are too numerous to mention. However, it is easy to examine both the 1936 and 1972 Olympic games both held in  Munich. Recently, we could examine the challenges of Mokgadi Caster Semenya, a South African sprinter and issues related to biological sex identification.  The bathroom law issue that saw All-Star games being moved and Super Bowl venues threatened.

And of course, right this second, the interesting conflagration between the Chinese state, Darryl Morey and the NBA.  The NBA has found itself in the midst of a significant business challenge because of a tweet that was supportive of protesters in Hong Kong.

Personally, I find this one fascinating because of how ‘naked’ the issue is.  Morey fired off a tweet in support of democracy and the right to protest. The Chinese state-sponsored broadcaster, CCTV cancelled the broadcast of NBA pre-season games in China and hit back with, "We're strongly dissatisfied and oppose...Morey's right to freedom of expression."  Adam Silver, the NBA Commissioner, was thrust into the role of managing, in effect, a geopolitical issue that pitted, the western principles of free speech and an individual’s liberty to exercise it against the entire Chinese Communist Party and it’s mode of governance. Oh, and don’t forget Adam, protect the NBA’s significant business interests in China.

[As an aside, it is absolutely fascinating to watch organizations like ESPN effectively go limp in the face of massive sport and political issues. Domestic politics, I can maybe understand. However, this particular case is fascinating. If ESPN, an entity purporting to conduct sports journalism, withers at the idea of directly addressing how a state is weaponizing a major professional sport to attack free speech in order to directly tamp out free speech and democracy (read here; a free press and core American values), it represents an example of inexcusable moral cowardice that is a betrayal of the power of sport worldwide. Anyway…]

Never mind that Morey, knowing the extent of the Houston Rocket’s special status and popularity in China should have been aware of the impact of his tweet (and then to delete it after...why send it if you won’t stand by it?).  Never mind that one must wonder how brittle the Chinese state is if it is fearful of a tweet from an analytics geek who is the General Manager of a basketball team in Texas. Never mind that Adam Silver is not a politician and has zero capacity to legislate against or ban constitutionally protected rights.

The point is, politics can and will intrude into sports. Sport can and will be used as a platform for politics.  The reality is the higher profile your sport and your athlete the greater the likelihood things can get political.  

The takeaway?  Ensure your athletes (and staff) are educated.  Ensure your athletes understand the historical significance of your team, institution and sport.  Help them understand the importance of the platform and the responsibility that comes with standing on it.  Help them to be able to intelligently articulate their views while understanding and being aware of opposing viewpoints. Give them context!

People have opinions.

People have opinions.

Support athletes that have contrarian viewpoints (provided they are defensible in fact, the earth is flat as a viewpoint is not defensible) and support athletes that seek to use sport as a platform. Not providing your athletes and staff with this kind of background education is the equivalent of sending them into an intellectual gunfight with a poorly constructed paper mache knife.

Advocating for the good ole days of ‘shut up and play’, typically directed at players is ridiculous. Those days never existed. The reason is simple and the abundance of evidence to support it is overwhelming; sport is political.

Duncan Fletcher