A Place for Politics?

Social activism blooming in the world of professional sports 


The only name that might have circulated more than Peyton Manning’s or Cam Newton’s following Superbowl fifty, was the pop culture queen herself, Beyonce Knowles. Although most initial chatter focused on her unannounced arrival at the half time show, the conversation following the ‘Formation’ performance narrowed in on the message driven behind the vocals and dance. In congruence with the lyrics narrowing in on the spectrum of black culture that is frequently ignored by North America, the dancers entered an X formation - that we can assume paid tribute to activist Malcom X- while attired in burets and structured leather jackets, resembling uniforms of the social organization Black Panther Party. 

Following the show at Levi’s Stadium, the dancers were photographed together fists in air holding a sign that read “Justice for Mario Woods,” an African American man shot 15 times by San Francisco police. Although Beyonce was criticized by multiple via social media for highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement, her politically driven musical content was not isolated as headliner Chris Martin decorated his arm with Global Citizen band. The musicians’ use of the football game that broadcasted to 167 million, as a stage for social activism speaks to the larger trend of professional athletes speaking out on cultural injustices within their arenas. 

Following the death of Eric Garner, an African American man who was put in a choke hold by police officers to the point of asphyxiation NBA superstars like Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant dressed in warm up shirts that said, “I can’t breathe.” This was the final statement uttered by Garner and eventually became one of the slogans used to illustrate the powerful disconnect between the significance of black lives and the power issued to police. 

Following the political warm up attire in a game against the Sacramento Kings, Bryant noted “It’s become a thing where people standing up for their rights, they’re really questioning the justice system, they’re questioning the process of the legal system and those who have authority and whether or not they’re abusing authority, and what’s the threshold to use that force, and so forth and so on. But that’s what our nation was founded on. We have the ability to question these things, and in a peaceful fashion. And that’s what makes us a great country” (ESPN) .

It was a beautiful moment when Canada defeated the roster of Americans in the 2016 NBA all-star celebrity game in Toronto. After graciously acknowledging the victory over our Southern neighbour, Canadian player and Arcade Fire singer Win Butler engaged in an interview with ESPN reporter Sage Steel, where he went on to say, “Thank you. I just want to say as an election year in the U.S. (insert music interruption) The U.S. has a lot they can learn from Canada- health care, taking care of people…” Steele rapidly cut Butler off and followed with, “So we’re talking about celebrity stuff, not politics. Congratulations on your MVP,” trailed by a shot of the basketball court. Any attempt to possibly sway Americans off the Trump train was immediately censored as attention was drawn to a meaningless award.

The idea that athletes are no more than unengaged dumb jocks no longer persists thanks to the unwavering voices of few who have spoken up in light of professional leagues desire to paint them as single dimensional, flowery individuals. Professional games with their extensive viewership and influential figures are evolving into sights driving cultural shifts, topics that were once disconnected from the athletic community are now portrayed and spark discussion via the athlete.