The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We tell ourselves sports are politically neutral. That’s a lie.

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters raises his fist in the air during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday in Kansas City, Mo. (John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star via AP)

Let a thousand raised fists bloom.

As the National Football League’s regular season kicked off this weekend, players on a number of teams joined San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in protests during pre-game playings of the national anthem. Kaepernick has chosen to sit during the song; during their season openers, four Miami Dolphins players took a knee, while the Kansas City Chiefs’ Marcus Peters raised his fist during the anthem and the New England Patriots’ Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty made similar gestures after the anthem concluded.

These protests are sure to spur continued complaints that professional athletes are acting inappropriately, bringing politics into a formerly politics-free zone. But of all the complaints levied against athletes who speak out about politics, this argument is the stupidest. From their infrastructure to their symbolism, just about every part of professional sports is highly political. Treating sports as a special zone of national consensus is the essence of denial.

It’s true, as Zack Beauchamp writes in Vox, that professional sports leagues adopted the anthem and other patriotic iconography essentially as a branding exercise. Just because we’ve become accustomed to hearing the anthem or seeing a presentation of the colors before games begin doesn’t mean these rituals are somehow apolitical. Normal is not the same thing as politically neutral.

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Patriotic displays are hardly the only political thing about professional sports.

The stadiums where these displays take place are often paid for in part — if not entirely — by public funding. For years, the lack of a professional football team based in Los Angeles, one of the largest media markets in the country, has allowed teams to threaten to leave town, blackmailing municipalities into paying for fancier accommodations. Earlier this year, Fox Sports reported that since 1996, American cities have spent $7 billion on stadiums for NFL teams alone, shouldering 46 percent of the construction costs for those arenas.

It’s not only cities that the NFL has tried to intimidate. For years, the league sought to influence research into concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, undermining physician Bennet Omalu’s work on the subject and withholding promised funding from an eminent neuropsychologist. It would be bad enough if the league was merely subverting the scientific process, but the NFL’s concussion denialism prevented an honest discussion about the impact of the hard hits players take in the course of their work; the result, in some cases, has been players committing suicide in ways that would preserve their brains for posthumous research and study.

More broadly, professional sports leagues are also places where we work out big, complex social issues.

Leagues’ decisions about how to handle domestic violence and sexual assault, for example, help set the tone around discussions of these issues and make stark statements about what kind of behavior fans will excuse from the players they love. The continued gap between the attention and financial investments devoted to men’s and women’s sports speak to a lingering gender divide.

Professional sports were the site of major public conversations around integration. Once men of color were allowed to play alongside their white counterparts, sports became evidence that conservatives could point to when they wanted to argue that America offered equal opportunity to everyone, regardless of color.

College athletes’ experiences raise important questions about fair compensation, whether the colleges that recruit them are failing to provide them with adequate educations, or raking in money earned by athletes who aren’t paid and can’t even accept favors or hire agents to advocate for their interests. And for all that fabulously wealthy professional athletes may not inspire much pity, their contract negotiations force the public to confront who ought to benefit from players’ work on the field.

In this context, athletes like Kaepernick aren’t injecting politics into sports. Rather, they’re joining a series of conversations already in progress, some of which have been designed in ways that marginalize dissenting views. Even beyond the specific issues of racial injustice they’ve embraced, the work they’re doing to puncture the apolitical facade that hovers over professional sports like an expensive, hermetically sealed dome on a taxpayer-financed stadium is a profound public service.