This election season is has lasted far longer than any I can remember. Even for professional politicians, the constant emotional theater of controversy, fear and anger during the election has grown quite wearying. Undoubtedly many Americans feel the same way – weary of the constant fighting and media natter, and yearning for a neutral ground where we can forget about our trouble for a while and enjoy the passionate distraction. Many people find a brief respite in their favorite sports contests, an arena which is supposedly America’s ultimate safe space.
That is, it was considered so until recently. The controversy surrounding San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has decided to kneel instead of stand during the singing of the national anthem before games, represents for some, a gross violation of that sacred place. In many ways, sports stars and entertainers transcend America’s social dynamics. Michael Jordan is considered a god among many, his racial identity all but forgotten amidst his towering legend. Tiger Woods – at least before his fall from grace – was viewed in the same light by many. Sports stars enjoy the lofty, if somewhat precarious esteem of being those in whom we invest our collective fantasies about our most powerful achievement.
And when the lights come on in the stadium for the Monday night game, the last thing anyone wants to talk about are the things that divide us (aside from our favorite teams obviously). And yet, even on this stage, at the ultimate moment of the crowning of the American gladiator – politics sometimes creeps in. Beyoncé’s half-time show last year was a tour-de-force of pop performance; she did not disappoint in terms of her talent and choreography. But she also chose the platform to deliver a somewhat coded message about the struggle between police and the black community – ending her show with dancers dressed in black panther-looking regalia giving what was perceived to be a military solute.
‘Wait up a minute,’ many people muttered from their couches in front of the TV after her halftime show, ‘Did my eyes deceive me? Has Beyoncé actually desecrated the holiest day of the sports year by promoting a radical political agenda?’ There were two principle lines of argument that seemed generate most of the controversy. The first was that Beyoncé chose the side of Black Lives Matter over Police officers and thereby disrespected officers who have laid down their live to uphold the law; not to mention many officers who were actively involved in providing security for the very venue in which Beyoncé chose to express her allegedly ‘anti-cop’ views. Others took the exact opposite position, that by co-opting the symbolism and imagery of the Black Panthers within a pop performance, Beyoncé belittled the black power movement and exploited the civil rights struggle for commercial gain.
Whether one fell on one side or the other of the argument, both sides seemed to agree that by injecting politics into a public sporting event, Beyoncé unfairly ambushed an unsuspecting public. As with the actions of Colin Kaepernick, or Tommy Smith and John Carlos who raised their fists in protest while on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics, public outcry over Beyoncé’s actions seemed center on the propriety of the place of protest rather than the merits of their political agenda. And for many, the actions of Beyoncé, Kaepernick and others really begs the question of whether a sporting event is the proper venue for voicing political views.
But the fact remains, they are tempting places. During the Baltimore riots in April 2013, protesters showed up outside Orioles baseball stadium and confronted exiting fans in a tense stand-off that ultimately resulted in the cancellation of a game. Angry fans spilled out of the stadium and confronted the protesters and a stand-off ensued. The act of using the sports arena as a political platform offended many more than even the property damage that occurred in other parts of the city at the hands of the rioters. Two days later, due to public safety concerns, the public was banned from attending, and the Orioles played to an empty stadium. This was perhaps the last straw for many. What in the world did baseball fans have to do with the social plight of inner-city Baltimore residents?
But, that quite ironically, may be the point. When we take on our different identities – husband, mother, co-worker, sports fan – we do not necessarily leave all of our other identities at the door. To some poor protestors, the Stadium and the fans represented a physical manifestation of the mainstream political establishment they were hell-bent on challenging. But there may also have been a tinge of envy involved too; as if the protesters were saying, ‘Why should you get to enjoy your fantasy pastime in peace and safety, while we have to be confronted with hard realities on the streets?’ On the other side of the aisle, the fact that the U.S. military uses sporting events as a recruiting tool proves their political value in ways that have now become so embedded in our national consciousness that we are not always aware of them. To the police and military, it is assumed that professional sports and patriotic displays go hand in hand.
But others may beg to differ. In 2003, at the height of their mega-stardom, country music band the Dixie Chicks stood in front of a crowd in England and uttered the simple words:
“Just so you know we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Here we are dealing with a fine point. The country was on edge, and had just invaded Iraq in the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attack on America on 9/11. The country music industry exploded in indignation at their comments, and the Dixie Chicks were blacklisted from radio for almost ten years. Their political statement was viewed as unpatriotic, not merely because they had criticized President Bush, but because they had done so during a war. The Dixie Chicks were eventually welcomed back into the fold – but not through the door of Country Music through which they exited the stage. Their comeback album Taking the Long Way won 2007 Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year. One wonders whether their red carpet Hollywood welcome was due to the fact that they had been forgiven their sacrilege, or whether their views were ultimately vindicated by what had by that time become a widely unpopular war in the Middle East.
The point remains a fundamental one though. It is often not the underlying political issue that people find most disconcerting about the contentious mixture of sports, entertainment and politics. The issue is that many fans come to the arena for the express purposes of escaping troubling issues and being entertained for a while. At a certain point, repeated violations of that sacred space lose their shock value and can actually end up causing more harm to their cause than help.