The Unfortunate Intersection of Sports and Politics


Patrick Hamill '24

It’s that time of year again. The NHL season has just begun, baseball is roaring into the playoffs, the NBA will be underway within the coming days, and the NFL is already a third of the way through the season. With many sports starting to ramp up again, I thought it would be a fitting time to take a look back at the sports seasons of the past year and a half, and how they became infused with politics.

People watch sports primarily as a source of entertainment ‒ to see McDavid go coast to coast, to watch Arenado make a diving catch, to laugh at James Harden’s defense, and to witness Rodrigo “The GOAT” Blankenship kick a field goal. People flock to their TVs to take a break from work, school, and the struggles of life in general, to wind down and watch a game. Sports also have a unique ability to unify people and entire cities as fans passionately back their favorite teams. You know what, I’m talking about if you attended the Blues’ championship parade in the summer of 2019, when approximately 400,000 fans packed the streets of downtown St. Louis in a sea of blue. The city celebrated together, as players shook hands and took pictures with fans, and presented the cup to the overjoyed crowd. Sports have the ability to offer people unifying experiences such as these, which will not easily be forgotten.

However, in the past year or so, sports have become ever-more infused with politics, following the events of the summer of 2020, including the death of George Floyd and the popularization of the Black Lives Matter organization. In the NBA, players had the opportunity to put social justice slogans on the back of their jerseys, and the courts were lined with phrases such as “Black Lives Matter”. Similar events occurred in other leagues, such as the NHL, MLB, and NFL. Sports talk shows such as First Take and Inside the NBA, just to name a few examples, have become increasingly more political, broadening their discussions to matters of social justice. The problem is, when people tune in to sports games or talk shows, they simply want to watch their favorite team play, or they want to hear Stephen A. Smith, an endless supply of memes, analyze games and make bold predictions. What many people don’t want is to be met with political messaging when watching sports, as this is the very thing which they are trying to escape from. There is no need to infuse the sporting experience with political ideas and discussions, which are divisive by definition, as we have seen happen in the past year. This only takes away from the unifying nature of sports.

The joining of politics and sports is one of many reasons for the plummeting ratings that many sports leagues saw in 2020. For example, the viewership of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final was down over 60% from the previous year’s spectacle (LGB!), falling from 5.3 million to 2.15 million average viewers per game. In the same time span, the average viewership of the NBA playoffs was down 37%, the US Open’s (golf) viewership fell by 56%, and the MLB playoffs experienced a 40% decline from the year prior. These drops are not solely due to the influx of politics, although various polls indicate that political topics did contribute to the falling ratings. For example, a Yahoo News poll states that in 2020, due to social justice messaging, around 10% of people say they watch more sports, about 34% say they watch fewer sports, and approximately 56% say they watch the same amount. Many sports leagues are starting to see the negative effects that political messaging has on their viewership levels. For example, Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner, has begun to remove much of the social justice slogans that were seen at NBA games.

I am not suggesting that individual athletes should not speak their minds on political issues that are important to them, as they have a right to use their platform as they please. However, I do believe that the broad spread of politics into American sports will have negative effects on the sports leagues themselves, in terms of ratings, and it will also chisel away at the unifying nature of sports, taking away the beauty of one of America’s greatest pastimes.