A closeup of a football on a turf field. Photo by Jean-Daniel Francoeur from Pexels under Pexels license.

2024 Readers:

Sport and politics in America are deeply intertwined, but in complicated and often invisible ways–these were among the main points of a TSP feature that Doug Hartmann and then-graduate student board member Kyle Green wrote during Superbowl week in 2012. After a decade of athlete activism and more conservative populist engagements with sport, it seems worth reviewing this piece and considering if anything has changed. Hartmann, for what it is worth, is currently working on a book project that extends these themes, tentatively titled “Take-a-Knee Nation: Athletic Activism and the Backlash Against It.”

Originally posted in 2012.

So, are you more Super Bowl or Super Tuesday? No matter how you answer, if you are like most Americans, you probably think the two—sports and politics—are unrelated. You might even object to the suggestion of a tie on principle alone. We’re not so bold as to suggest there aren’t some good reasons for the separation of sport and politics, but this orientation is, in certain ways, unfortunate. It can blind us to the ways in which the two contested fields are intimately bound together in contemporary American culture.

Sport scholars and cultural critics have actually spent a good deal of time thinking about and researching these relationships over the years. Academics like us have looked at politics in sports and sports in politics. In this piece, we will take a look at the latter; that is, the ways in which sports are part of and implicated in the political process. It is an exploration that not only shows the power of sport in politics but also challenges and expands some of our basic conceptions of politics itself. 

Sports and Political Leadership

Barack Obama was proclaimed the “Sports President” even before he set foot in the White House. Sport pundits wrote glowingly of the potential for positive change that Obama’s election would bring: the power of players’ unions would be increased, Title IX would be enforced, the Olympics would come to Chicago and the World Cup to American soil, and the long-criticized college football bowl system would finally be repaired. While many of the loftier expectations have not been met, Obama has maintained the label by regularly attending sporting events of all types, inviting his favorite teams to the White House, showing off his jump shot during frequent games of pick-up basketball, and sharing his annual video explanation of his March Madness picks (a video that occupies a prime spot on ESPN’s homepage every year).

The celebration of Obama seems to be a case of collective amnesia. Only a few years prior, George W. Bush was hailed as the “Sports President” due to his own sporting pedigree—the one-time owner of the Texas Rangers, he took outspoken pride in throwing out the first pitch at the World Series in post-9/11 New York and had a passion for running, biking, and working out. And before Bush, Bill Clinton was frequently spotted cheering on his Arkansas Razorbacks or out on the golf green, and he was lauded for his involvement in Major League baseball negotiations. And before Clinton, much was made of the first President Bush’s baseball career at Yale. In fact, if we peruse the historical archives, it seems almost every president was hailed with the same title. Other “Sports Presidents” included Gerald Ford, the All-American center from Michigan; Richard Nixon, a former college football player who loved to spend time at the bowling alley and even drew up a play for the Washington Redskins; JFK, who was famous for his swimming ability and fitness; and Teddy Roosevelt, who, wellknown for his rugged lifestyle, boxed and wrestled in the White House and introduced rules to increase the safety of college football. Obama wasn’t our first “Sports President,” nor do we suspect he’ll be the last.

Social scientists haven’t spent as much time researching these connections as you might expect. Perhaps it is because the appearance of political leaders at local sporting events is so deeply normalized that we don’t even notice it. However, as any good sociologist will tell you, sometimes that which seems the most ordinary is the most revealing. In this case, a critical examination reveals sport serving at least three key functions.

First, sport provides a stage for public visibility, attention, and awareness. For a politician, virtually all publicity is good. Appearing at an event, whether throwing out the first pitch of a big game or simply sitting in the stands is bound to attract cameras and a mention in the local newspaper. At the very minimum, sport provides a safe stage for a politician to remind the public of her existence.

Secondly and more significantly, sport can help solidify a politician’s reputation, identity, and social status. It can demonstrate that a politician is, at least on some level, just one of the guys (or gals)—or even better: a certain kind of guy (or gal). Sociologists, in particular French theorist Pierre Bourdieu, have argued that taste plays a key role in dividing up social groups. When a politician appears at, say, a college basketball game, it shows they share a common passion with the wider public. In the same way a political candidate drinking a beer at the local watering hole has become an obligatory photo-op, appearing at a sporting event proves he or she isn’t an elitist snob.

And much like it is important that the candidate knows how to hold the pint glass in the photo-op at the bar, it is important the politician simply acts like an ordinary sports fan at the game. Both their emotions and favorite team’s colors should be worn for all to see. When Obama makes a joke at the expense of the Packers, the rival of his hometown Bears, it doesn’t alienate Green Bay fans (in fact, it endears them) because he is acting in the appropriate manner—he’s acting like a real sports fan. This creates the all-important space for an emotional connection to be made.

Of course, sport, like the bar, has a long tradition as masculine space; sometimes it’s even characterized as a “refuge of masculinity.” This provides yet another barrier to women seeking success in the political realm, which itself can be seen as another of the “last refuges.”

In any case, the manner in which sport provides the chance to connect with communities that bridge political and ideological divides makes it particularly appealing to those seeking public approval. This speaks to the third way in which sport is crucial to political leadership. Whether it is sitting courtside or receiving athletic champions at the White House, politicians love to be associated with the fun, positive energy associated with modern sports, not to mention the aura of excellence, excitement, and success. These appearances work toward the creation of legitimacy, likeability, and credibility through the transference of the positive feelings associated with sports, especially those that are popular and successful.

There isn’t much research on the mechanisms through which this transfer works, but there is little doubt that smart politicians and their advisors are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to create good feelings by associating their campaigns and agendas with athletes and athletic events. (Albeit cautiously—political types can never be too overt about any of this, lest they violate the ideals and values that both domains hold dear). The same tactics, of course, are used by many: for years, researchers have documented the massive capital corporations have invested to build associations with popular teams or athletes. For example, sport researchers Stephen Jackson and Jay Scherer have written on the relationship between Adidas and New Zealand’s dominant rugby squad, the All Blacks, and the scholar Walter LaFeber documented the global reach of the Nike–Michael Jordan alliance. Just as athletes and athletic associations sell products, politicians try to associate with sport to help sell themselves and their agendas to a sport-loving public.

The Politics of Sport and Culture

Usually when Americans talk about politics they are referring to campaigns and elections, legislative debates, and the making of law and public policy. Surely the emphasis on electoral processes organizes how much of academic political science is oriented. But there is another, broader aspect of political life that is easy to overlook or leave out. This is what we might call cultural politics. The politics of culture involve how political communities and interests are created, consolidated, and maintained; it involves the construction of cultural frames and social problems—what are seen as problems in need of attention or correction, what is considered core to the public interest, and what’s not even worthy of political consideration.

Some of the most famous scholars of sport have spent their time theorizing from this perspective, examining how sport is central to creating and reinforcing social solidarities and collective identities, what is seen as natural or acceptable (and thus not open to political action or contestation), and which social problems are most pressing.

The ever-elusive notion of “community” provides a prime illustration. In recent years, politicians and academics have bemoaned the decline in community pride and civic attachment. And perhaps it is true that more people are now bowling alone, as Robert Putnam’s book claims; however, the number of people tailgating before the big game, united by their love of their team has only grown. The founders of the sociological discipline were driven by the question of what would bring people together and serve as a unifying force in a society that was rapidly becoming more complicated, diverse, and fragmented. In many places, for better or worse, sport has been the answer. Sport provides a public activity that is often as much about the audience as the participants. In doing so, a basis for some sort of common, unified, and collective identity is provided.

The community fervor that can surround sport is wellcaptured in H.G. Bissinger’s popular book Friday Night Lights (on high school football in a small Texas town) and is the subject of insightful analysis in Richard Gruneau and David Whitson’s Hockey Night in Canada. Arguments for the public funding of professional sport stadiums rely heavily on the belief that sport can forge community. Plus, building such monuments to sports is one of the few endeavors a local politician can undertake to define her agenda and leave her mark on a city.

Sport and culture studies of the cultural dimensions of the politics surrounding sport, though, have tended to focus on sport’s conservative or reproductive social nature. From this perspective, sport is an institution that tends to reproduce the existing social status quo, and, in that way, it can work on behalf of those politicians or political parties currently in office. More than this, it reproduces current class divisions as well as understandings of race, gender, and sexuality by making current social standings seem both organic and set.

In the most extreme reading, sport serves as what a Marxist might call the “opiate of the masses”—something mindless to occupy the working class’s time and energy, which might otherwise be invested in creating drastic political change. Studies in this tradition have become more nuanced through engagement with the work of classic social theorist Antonio Gramsci, a move that has led to sport being conceived of as a site of contestation and potential resistance. However, even with the added complexity, the political significance of sport remains rooted in its role in the reproduction of social class.

Race scholars have questioned the role sport plays in maintaining racial stereotypes, in particular the athletic prowess and intellectual deficiency of black men. Ben Carrington, in his recent book Race, Sport, and Politics, adds to this literature through a specific focus on how sport has been a central site for both establishing and resisting understandings of race and biological difference. In his work, Carrington illustrates that sport is able to play such a significant role in the construction of racial images and identities because of the common (but misplaced) perception that it is located in an apolitical realm.

Feminist theorists take much the same view, conceptualizing sport as a key site for the reproduction of understandings of gender. Drawing heavily on French cultural theorist Michel Foucault, gender scholars have examined how the body itself becomes a political site upon which power operates. Debates over the value of Title IX and the effectiveness of the sex testing performed by athletic commissions demonstrates how sporting institutions both rely on, and help establish, a binary understanding of gender. Similarly, many of the most important of the masculinity scholars, including Raewyn Connell, Michael Messner, and Michael Kimmel, have highlighted sport as a central site where boys learn how to perform a dominant, physical brand of manhood.

Because of its cultural prominence and the ways in which it is bound up with so many of the differences and inequalities of contemporary society, activists (both in and around sport) have often seen sport as a potential arena for contestation and change. Whether considering the 1968 African American Olympic protests or Title IX gender equity activism, sport scholars (including ourselves) have devoted a tremendous amount of energy and attention to these potentials and possibilities. This is, in fact, the single most familiar use and meaning of the term politics and sports in the field: protests, activism, social movements using sport to call attention to existing inequalities and work on behalf of broader social change.

But for all of this, the fact of the matter is that sport’s political effects would seem to be far more powerful as a means of social reproduction, in maintaining the social order as it is. Sport tends to be associated with political anti-change, the maintenance of the status quo. And perhaps the most obvious and yet least appreciated example of that involves the display of anthems, flags, and even military personnel (or fighter jets) at sporting events large and small, local and international—and without a doubt at this weekend’s Super Bowl.

Sport has long been a means of establishing national pride and a belief in a population’s genetic or at least cultural superiority. When boxer Joe Louis avenged his earlier loss to Max Schmeling with a first-round knockout it was considered a victory for American democracy over a perverted German nationalism, not just one boxer over another. The importance placed on American Olympic athletes’ success during the Cold War provide yet another example. Significantly, they were under pressure not only to win medals, but also to unite the population in celebration of both athletic and moral superiority.

Spotting Sport in Political Discourse

A third area in which sports and politics are deeply implicated, perhaps even inextricably woven together, is within political discourse, so much of which is informed by and indeed expressed through sports metaphors and images.

Sport historians and theorists have debated which political regimes in the history of the modern world have been best positioned and able to make political use of sport. What stands out about sport in American politics (if not in other liberal democracies as well) is the way in which sport’s idealized culture of competitive fair play mirrors, matches, and models American conceptions of justice, fairness, and the good society.

Unlike the ability to down a local brew, sport is also associated with moral worth. Within the popular media and the community of fans, the sporting world is cherished as  meritocracy at its finest. The playing field is said to be even, and the players who reach the highest levels do so through talent, drive, and hard work. As a fan, it is nearly impossible to avoid subscribing to these omnipresent ideals. Tales of players “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” and escaping abject poverty to achieve incredible wealth based on being the hardest worker on the team dominate ESPN’s “color commentary” and the pages of Sports Illustrated. And on the field, cooperation, cohesion, reciprocity, and self-sacrifice are celebrated as essential to bringing team success.  When it works, all of this individualism and hard work and team play fits together so seamlessly and smoothly that it seems like it couldn’t be any other way—and that any failing is just one’s own, personal shortcoming.

This can be positive and problematic. On the positive side, the idea that sport is somehow a model or metaphor for social life makes it a frequent reference point, either in terms of abstract ideas, ideals, and values or in terms of athletes, competitions, and events in the sporting world being believed to embody and used to express political and ideological views. To be seen as possessing those upstanding qualities through association can provide a powerful vehicle for sending those messages (not to mention an all so important boost in the public opinion polls). On the negative side, the infusion of sports language and metaphors in politics can be seen to undermine politics itself—making it less serious about real issues, more cutthroat and competitive, more about process than about outcomes and people.

In his book on sports, race, and the Olympics, Douglas Hartmann looked at how Ronald Reagan talked about the Olympic torch relay in the context of his reelection campaign of 1984. On the one hand, Reagan waxed poetic about the torch relay in an attempt to capitalize on the patriotic enthusiasm and exuberance that surrounded the spectacular American performance in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (albeit a Games that was boycotted by the USSR and its Eastern Bloc allies).

But a closer read of the speech revealed that Reagan’s emphasis on the Olympic torch relay was about much more than building public support for his presidency and his reelection campaign. The president also used the event to craft and convey his unique, post-1960s vision of social justice and racial harmony. It was a vision that was based upon individual opportunity and a community in which individuals (not groups) were united around a common cause, had equal access to opportunity, and drew heavily if implicitly on the ideals about fair play, competition, hard work, and individual effort that circulate widely within the world of sport itself. It was a moving portrait, a stirring vision made all the more powerful by the fact that many who heard it thought of it as nothing more than a story about an all-American event and a set of ideals that any and every American could agree upon.

Seeing through a Sacred Divide

It does not take a great imagination, only a sociological one, to see that sport is indeed a powerful political platform. Sport is actively sought as a stage on which to be seen and solidify one’s public identity, political legitimacy, and leadership qualities. It is important in reproduction of social categories. Sports language and imagery is pervasive in our political rhetoric. There is no denying it, from paying for new stadiums through public tax dollars to standing for the national anthem to considering a mandate that women boxers must wear skirts, politics and sport are tightly intertwined.

Some might take these observations as the impetus to, once and for all, get sport out of politics (and politics out of sports)—either because sport is believed to be above all the political scrum (a sacred realm of sorts) or simply better understood as a realm of fun and entertainment that is only compromised by the complexity and conflict of real-world politics. This isn’t necessarily our goal. Instead, we simply seek to call attention to the fact that in the real world sport and politics are not nearly as separate as we might think or would like to believe.

That said, we also realize our modest goal has some potentially far-reaching implications that might first be understood and imagined. We don’t want to sell it short.

Sport is a powerful and important political force. But it is most powerful when people are least aware of it—when people believe that nothing important or unusual is going on; in other words, when the politics are hidden or masked, seen as natural or organic. For politicians, this means that they must engage in a delicate dance because even as they use sport for a political purpose it is essential that sport retain its status as a somehow sacred or at least special space. For the rest of us, trying to be aware of what is going on in order that we might participate in both politics and sports with our eyes open, as equals rather than as dupes subject to the manipulation and exploitation of others.

The point, in short, is that it’s not necessary to take sport out of politics, but simply to realize that it is there and to engage it appropriately. Perhaps this realization is the first and most basic “political” act of all.

Recommended Reading

  • John Hoberman. 1984. Sport and Political Ideology (University of Texas Press). A classic exploration on the affinities between sports and political orientations and regimes ranging from communist and socialist to fascist, authoritarianism, and liberal democracy.
  • John J. MacAloon. 1987. “Missing Stories: American Politics and Olympic Discourse.” Gannett Center Journal, Columbia University, Fall: 111-142. A provocative commentary on the peculiar structure and function of the Olympics in American political discourse.