The new era of backlash in sports and politics End-shutdown

Douglas Hartmann, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies protest movements among athletes, believes that the Black Lives Matter movement that followed the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 ushered in a new era in sports and politics, and I am inclined to agree. The years from 2012 to 2020 saw players trying to organize a progressive and protest-oriented political intervention within the world of sports. Examples of this abound, from the Miami Heat posing in their hoodies after the murder of Trayvon Martin to the down on my knees by Colin Kaepernick, to maya moore retirement, to WNBA players who help influence the United States Senate. I could go on and on, and not just with star athletes, but with legions of young people who got down on their knees, raised their fists, and emboldened themselves that their agency as athletes mattered in the fight against police violence.

For most of this period, right-wing bosses and politicians were taken by surprise. For them, sport had certainly always been a place for politics: their own politics. Militarism and hyperpatriotism held sway comfortably for more than a century, then increased dramatically after 9/11.

That is the “national unity” policy, and whenever the national anthem was followed by “God Bless America” and a salute to the troops, they were in their comfort zone. The players took this political landscape and turned it on its head, and this was too much for Donald Trump. Speaking in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2017, Trump called NFL players on their knees “sons of bitches.” NFL players were outraged, and more athletes took a knee in response, refusing to visit the White House while Trump was president.

But Trump achieved something important with that speech: he opened up the world of sports to the extreme right. Conservatives began to attack and mobilize against the ways in which the sports world had been pushing for collective change. Media companies came up with analysis that boiled down to criticizing any policy deemed “woke.” Upset about a child killed by the police? For many right-wing pundits, lawless killings became less of a concern than players acting “woke” in response. The right wing proudly uses athletics as a Trojan horse for its own hatreds and fascism; Either that, or you think Ben Shapiro is passionate about sports coverage.

That was not the only difference. Right-wing athletes began to fight back soon after expressing their own ideas, dispensing with the notion that sport was the place for national unity. Sport would now be a disputed space and a battle would be waged. As Hartmann points out, we can’t just genuflect when an athlete is speaking. They have so much influence; these statements demand analysis and be taken seriously.

We have also seen that the sports platform is not only for Megan Rapinoes of the world, but also for Enes Kanter, also an NBA runner, to attend the Tucker Carlson show and criticize black players for speaking out. It has been used by many prominent athletes, including, heartbreakingly, Martina Navratilova, to condemn trans people who compete and share locker rooms with cisgender women. Kyrie Irving became a cause celebre among white nationalists for promoting an unwatchable anti-Semitic film, which rocketed to the top of the Amazon charts. And please don’t get me started on golf or Ron DeSantis’ texting partner Tom Brady.

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