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Our City: Sports Have Never Been Political and Other Lies To Help You Sleep at Night

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Sports and politics have been on everyone’s mind these past few weeks in the wake of the NFL anthem protests, and some sports fans just wish it would all go away, it won’t.

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MLS: FC Dallas at Orlando City SC Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

While scanning a Major League Soccer news site last Monday I ran across an angry comment referencing the anthem protests in the National Football League. The article had nothing to do with the protests, this commenter just saw his chance to inform anyone listening that he wanted politics to stay out of his sports, and if they found their way into MLS he’d stop watching the league.

I don’t want to crumble this commenter’s world view, but politics and sports, specifically soccer, have a long marriage. There are the thoughts that have been clogging your social media timelines last week of black power salutes on Olympic medal stands, Muhammad Ali quotes, reminders of Celtic-Rangers “Old Firm” match-ups in Scotland, and Catalonia independence in Barcelona’s stands. Thoughts of soccer riots in Egypt as part the democracy movement and peace during a civil war in Ivory Coast also come to mind.

Closer to home, Orlando City’s terraces often feature a variety of flags that run the political gamut from anarchist to one percenter. Yesterday afternoon, the Orlando supporters groups even flew a few extra flags to show solidarity with Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean as they recover from an earthquake and Hurricanes Irma and Maria, respectively.

Historically, sports have always shared their stage with politics, because both are so ingrained into society. I asked Andrew McGregor, sports historian and lecturer at Purdue University about the nature of the relationship of sports and politics in American history. McGregor argues that in the early part of the 19th century, “Sport taught discipline, toughness, respect for authority, and hard work. This framework underscores Teddy Roosevelt's use of sport as a symbol of American strength (i.e. nationalism) and imperialism.”

As the century progressed, sports continued to play a political role in society and globally. McGregor continued, “There are many other examples of sports intersecting with politics, such as the Cold War physical fitness policy enacted by the President's Council for Physical Fitness, that also tried to assert toughness and dominance as well as instill a culture of discipline and loyalty. Within the Cold War moment, we also see the Olympics as one of the foremost expressions of American nationalism. African-Americans were deployed as symbols of democracy abroad during this period despite living as second class citizens at home. This dissonance inspired the 1968 Olympic protests.”

As McGregor asserts, sports have long played a crucial role in American political life.

The awareness, of the MLS commenter and many Americans has been the assertion of political protest by athletes from marginalized segments of society. When American sports are helping to win the Cold War or assert dominant patriotism we don’t necessarily notice it as political. When that same stage is used by someone to draw attention to less hegemonic ideas there is tension — an expected tension, due to the nature of protests.

There have been times, moments sealed in our memories as historic now, where the mere appearance of an African-American, a woman, or a Catholic on a playing field was a political statement. There are teams and countries whose mere ability to turn up for a game makes a political argument for inclusion in larger conversations that have eluded them. There are match-ups and tournament draws that hold more intrigue politically than sporting.

The nature of this conversation is of course about kneeling for the national anthem. There has already been a lot of discussion on this topic nationally, and you invariably have already formed your opinion. One I will not use your time or the space on this website to try to change. But, in closing, I’d like to address the fears of the above commenter about MLS.

While I doubt the anarchist, libertarian, LGBTQ rights, one percenters, and anti-racism banners are going to leave the terraces anytime soon (sorry, angry MLS commenter), I don’t see MLS players eagerly engaging in anthem protests for two reasons. First, most of them aren’t American. As guests in this country they can still have political opinions, but displaying them during an anthem that isn’t theirs seems unlikely.

Second, American soccer players, for better or worse, know their place. Soccer is forever selling itself to America. Players know that. That unfortunately puts them in the position as league ambassadors, first and foremost. MLS and its players don’t have the luxury of being the most popular sport in the country with more than enough support to sustain it. And that might help us understand why it has been the NFL players that have been able to take a significant role in the protest of police relationships with the African-American community.

However things play out, the angry MLS commenter is going to have a really hard time finding a place where his sports are politics-free. Maybe he needs to start following a sport that’s a little less intense, like chess. Oh wait, nevermind, that’s really political too.