What are the Politics of Sports Protests in Trump America?
The Global Justice Academy recently attended an event at the Academy of Sport with visiting professor, Professor Lucia Trimbur (City University of New York; John Jay College of Criminal Justice), on the politics of sports protests in Trump America. The event was part of a collaboration between the Edinburgh Social and Political Sports Research Forum, the Academy of Sport and Moray House School of Education and Sport. Our Communications Intern, Heather Milligan, reflects on the findings and implications of this event.
In her presentation, Professor Trimbur invited audiences to consider the commitment of athletes (and their fans) to political movements, particularly those resistant to the Trump administration and its policies. Trimbur examined sports players’ capacity to struggle against pervasive inequality by denying the status quo, and suggested that modern sporting environments can foster political debates and alliances that may otherwise be inconceivable – illustrating her case with three case studies of American sporting events from the past year. Of particular interest to the Global Justice Academy was the focus Trimbur’s examples had on tackling discrimination and racial violence, gender justice and sexism.
Trimbur drew first on Colin Kaepernick’s repeated refusals to stand for the American national anthem before play, which Kaepernick himself explained as a protest against the oppression of ethnic minorities in the US and the country’s continued failure to address police brutality:
‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour […] To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder’. [NFL]
Rather than be complicit, Kaepernick instead acted to ally himself with, and provide a platform for, America’s oppressed – an act that inspired players of every level to join him in subsequent games across the country.
In being explicitly pro-American and pro-military, Kaepernick’s stance raised interesting questions about the place of patriotism in contemporary America. Rather than alienating or accusing proud Americans, Kaepernick encouraged them to question what the American flag truly represents: pointing to unification and equality at a time of wall-building isolationism. His protest was not an attack on America, but a plea to return to its core ideals; his drive towards dialogue as a means of improving the lived experience of Black Americans also served to posit inequality as the responsibility of all Americans.
Trimbur’s next case study was the USA Women’s Hockey team, who in March 2017 announced they would boycott the world championship, demanding equitable pay and better training conditions and support by the league. The team’s demands for women’s sport to be treated as seriously and professionally as men’s received massive media attention and support, until the pressure placed on USA Hockey was so great that the team were able to secure a four-year wage agreement, including the formation of a women’s high performance advisory team, as well as marketing and publicity. These clauses crucially aimed to protect and enable the future of girl’s and women’s hockey programming and funding, seeking a legacy far greater than one team’s pay rise.
In a similar vein, Tom Brady and numerous other players for the New England Patriots football team, having won the 2017 Super Bowl, announced that they would not make the customary travel arrangements to meet with the President, in protest of Trump’s gender politics and treatment of women. The Patriots’ demonstration reinforced the idea that challenging gender inequality is not just the responsibility of women activists, but of men too, and urged fellow players to actively use their platform and privilege to encourage change. The players aimed to provide alternative images of masculinity – ones that challenged, rather than enabled sexism and sexual assault – to combat the patriarchal domination of sports spaces, and players and fans alike encouraged traditionally misogynistic spaces like locker rooms to be rethought of as open public spaces for debate and discussion, in which all speakers can be held accountable. Once again, the protesters appealed to American family values and the importance of crafting a more equal world for future generations. In refusing to be associated with Trump and right-wing politics, the Patriots aimed to change the dominant narrative of misogyny, racism, lying and assault to one of inclusion, kindness and equality.
In light of this encouraging perspective on sports protests as presenting possibilities for progressive futures, the Global Justice Academy looks to the future of interdisciplinary collaborations that reach beyond the political sphere alone. It is the sporting element of these protests that made them so contentious, with many commenting on the potential inappropriateness of politicising sport – however, sport’s central place in American society makes it a crucial platform for dialogue. Provoked by such protests, discussions taking place in and around sporting environments were forced to confront the reality of institutional racism and gender inequality in the US. These protests utilised sports grounds to encourage communication and cooperation across race, class and gender divides.
A video podcast of Professor Trimbur’s talk has been provided by the Academy of Sport and is available at the following link: http://www.ed.ac.uk/education/institutes/spehs/academy-of-sport/dialogue/edinburgh-toronto-public-talks/what-are-the-politics-of-sports-protests-in-trump