Sports should be political

Image courtesy of lukedrich_photography on Flickr

When Trump was booed and a banner saying “Impeach Trump” was unfurled at Nationals Park during Game 5 of the World Series, many online decried the action and said we need to keep politics out of sports. Many Americans like to think of politics and sports as being neatly separated. Many stadiums, including Kauffman Stadium, explicitly ban banners and signs that contain political material. But the Nationals fans might be onto something that has been missing from American sports for too long: political fan culture.

I’m sure more than a few people have already rolled their eyes – or even closed this tab – because this idea is almost an anathema to American sports fans. Politics and sports should be separate, just ignore the military flyovers, national anthem before the game and other displays of American nationalism. But I don’t want to discuss these elements as much as I want to discuss fan culture. 

Politics as a part of fandom is really a form of organic fan culture. Team managers and owners typically do not endorse it and often seek to suppress it. Instead, it develops from within the fan base and is reflected in the symbols they embrace, the chants they use and the songs they sing. It also often manifests as protests against team management. Typically it emerges out of the political and social ideas of the fan base or a small part of the fan base. This seldom manifests as support for a party, organization or candidate. Instead, it gravitates toward broader ideological positions and displays of support for causes and movements.

This is especially true for soccer teams. Many soccer teams around the world originated as local clubs for the community, usually centered around public schools or churches, especially among the urban working class. Because the teams’ origins are in the community, fans feel a sense of ownership and have been able to develop the fan culture themselves. Liverpool Football Club in England, Celtic FC in Scotland, FC St. Pauli in Germany, AS Livorno in Italy, AEK Athens in Greece, Hapoel Tel-Aviv in Israel and Boca Juniors in Argentina are generally considered left-wing teams. Chelsea FC in England, SS Lazio in Italy and Beitar Jerusalem in Israel are generally considered right-wing. Other teams are identified with a specific side in a particular political divide, and this often plays into sports rivalries. FC Barcelona is associated with Catalan nationalism and separatism, while Real Madrid is associated with Spanish unionism. 

However, political fan culture is not limited to soccer, although it is most apparent there. The rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leaves has a political undercurrent, reflecting the divide between French Canadians and English Canadians and the Quebec sovereigntist and nationalist movements. None of this means that all fans of these teams are politically aligned, and there is certainly a diversity of political thought among fans.

It should be acknowledged that at times political fan culture can stray into the fringes, and in a dark way. SS Lazio has a disturbingly large minority of fascist supporters who wave swastika flags, give Nazi salutes and shout racist and anti-semitic chants during matches. Beitar Jerusalem has been dubbed “Israel’s most racist team,” and fan clubs have been connected to a number of incidents of racist violence. In England, the Chelsea Headhunters are a gang of neo-Nazi Chelsea fans who regularly attack minorities and fans of rival teams. Sports leagues in the United States are no strangers to violence and racism either, but vile conduct is by no means universal to all leagues and teams.

Political fan culture has failed to develop in the United States in comparison to abroad in large part because of the extreme commercialization of sports. While soccer teams abroad grew out of community sports clubs, baseball and football teams were established by businessmen. American sports leagues are first and foremost business ventures, not governing bodies for sports. As a result, fans don’t feel the same level of control over the teams that many soccer fans abroad do. In Germany, fans are required by law to own a controlling share of teams. In the United States, only one professional sports team, the Green Bay Packers, is owned by the fans. This has restricted the development of organic forms of fan culture, with team owners and league officials cultivating it for fans instead. Politics are naturally controversial and bad for business. As a result, leagues and teams seek to stamp out this form of organic fan culture. 

Sadly, this is one problem in the NFL we can’t blame solely on Roger Goodell.

Despite this, things are beginning to change, and we are starting to see political fan culture develop. The growing popularity of Major League Soccer has led to the emergence of fan groups that are explicitly anti-racist, anti-fascist and promote radical inclusivity, like the Fountain City Ultras here in Kansas City. This development has already brought fans into conflict with the League Front Desk. When the MLS updated it code of conduct at the start of this last season, prohibiting political displays, a group of Portland Timbers Fans were banned for three games by the league after waving flags with the three arrows – an anti-fascist symbol. In response, fans from nearly every team in the league launched the #AUnitedFront campaign to oppose the rules and the ban, and fans from rival teams began openly flaunting the MLS rules by waving anti-fascist flags during games. Fans united to stand up to the league and declare they were no longer going to allow the fan culture to be dictated by commercial interests. 

While the recent events at Game 5 could be just a one-off event, the fact that the crowd joined in the chant, rather than simply a few fans who brought the banner, tells me this is part of something bigger. 

“I think this is huge for DC,” a jubilant fan being interviewed by Fox 5 DC said after the National’s victory in Game 7.  “DC needed this. We got some asshole in the f****** White House.” 

I’m hopeful that this is the start of a burgeoning political fan culture in baseball. Maybe next season someone at the K will have a sign saying “Royals Fans Against Racism.” And hopefully, the Royals will also have a better season.

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