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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

American sport was racist for a long time before Donald Trump came along

Race and sport, which is ultimately at the heart of the latest crisis, has always had a very contentious history in the US

Buffalo Bills players 'take a knee' during the playing of the national anthem prior to an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos. AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes
Buffalo Bills players 'take a knee' during the playing of the national anthem prior to an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos. AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes

American football united from the top to its lowest ranks against president Donald Trump on Sunday in reaction to his comments about the sport. On Friday night, he had suggested that players who refused to acknowledge the national anthem before National Football League (NFL) games, and who ‘took the knee’ by failing to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner, should be kicked out of the game for their lack of patriotism, as well as making ill-informed comments about how the sport should be more violent.

By taking on the superstars of American sport, in both gridiron and basketball, whose champions also clashed with him, the president is locking horns with people who represent so much more to his compatriots than ‘here-today, gone-in-four-years’ politicians have ever done.

NFL matches across the country on Sunday became the latest front in the American culture wars, with millionaire members – and billionaire owners – of professional football teams across the 50 states joining protests against the president’s latest outrage, linking arms in unity or refusing to stand.

Even the singers belting out the anthem took part in protests – Meghan Linsey, a white country singer, who delivered the national standard in Tennessee before that state’s Titans and the Seattle Seahawks faced off, knelt as she finished singing.

Despite being a bastion of white privilege, the men pulling the strings of the football teams also united to criticise Mr Trump. The owners and CEOs of the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and many more – including the acting head of the New York Jets, the brother of owner Woody Johnson, Mr Trump’s ambassador to London – have publicly backed their players and criticised the president.

He has also alienated the millions of supporters of professional basketball teams, after cancelling an invitation to the White House to the National Basketball Association (NBA) champions Golden State Warriors. Their star player Steph Curry had turned down the opportunity and in a fit of pique the president rescinded the entire team's invite. Basketball legend LeBron James subsequently labelled Mr Trump a “bum”.

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WATCH: NFL players hit back at Donald Trump with fresh protests

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Having previously ripped ‘fellow’ Republicans, war heroes, anti-fascists, foreign leaders and many, many more, has the president finally stumbled on a constituency to hate on that just won’t wash with his base? To understand why this might be the straw that broke the camel’s back, one has to consider what sport in general – and American football in particular – mean to the country.

It’s hard to think of a nation where sport is more enshrined in the collective psyche than the United States of America, where sport at all levels feels almost like another element of the corporate structure of the country.

American sports provide a powerful metaphor for the state of the union. American football, as the name suggests, gives a casual observer an easy take on the nation: orchestrated violence on the field contrasting with the flag-waving uber-patriotism of the crowds, the relentless hawking of junk food and soft drinks; and, of course, scantily clad but wholesome cheerleaders showing off their knickers.

Baseball appeals to the hopeless romanticism of the America Dream; until recently many games took place surrounded by wooden bleachers that harked back to the early 20th-century, when the nation was stretching its limbs and awakening and beginning to impose itself, but still hankered after homegrown (white) heroes who hit and pitched like ‘naturals’ and whose records could be catalogued in reams of statistics. (Ironically pro-baseball now has a huge intake of Hispanic players whom wouldn’t pass muster with the president.)

And basketball can be seen as the vehicle through which African-Americans have enriched and empowered themselves, and where coaches of colour have managed teams in the professional league in far larger proportions than the other main pastimes. It’s also a sport which while dominated by black players, has a large white audience.

Sport is a massive part of America: the website EMSI, which focuses on economic modelling, says that the “industry as a whole brings roughly $14.3 billion in earnings a year — and that’s not even counting the Niagara of indirect economic activity generated by Super Bowl Sunday. The industry also contributes 456,000 jobs with an average salary of $39,000 per job.”

Super Bowl Sunday, the end point of the football season, famously sees an orgy of conspicuous consumption. The US Department of Agriculture says it is the “second largest food consumption day in America” after Thanksgiving. More than 12.5 million pizzas and 1.33 billion chicken wings are eaten on a single day, and thousands of staff are hired to meet the demand.

Socially, sport has been a key component of the drive towards reconciliation between races and classes, as top athletes are predominantly drawn from racial minorities and poorer strata of society, for whom professionalism has led to an economic shot in the arm.

And philosophically, sport has been the great unifier in American society. By creating national arenas – both actual and virtual, through the crowds in stadia and the millions watching on television – of multiracial and cross-cultural audiences the nation can come behind such events as the Super Bowl and baseball’s World Series to share common hopes and goals.

But race and sport, which is ultimately at the heart of the latest crisis, because the events Mr Trump was talking about began when a black San Francisco 49ers footballer, Colin Kaepernick, refused to honour the national anthem in reaction to police violence towards minorities, has always had a very contentious history.

Until 1947, professional baseball imposed a ‘color line’, which meant that talented black and Hispanic players were not appointed by clubs, before Jackie Robinson was famously signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. The bulk of NFL teams didn’t bring in black players until well into the 1950s, with one team owner saying “we’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters [a celebrated novelty basketball team] start signing whites.”

The NBA’s first non-white player, who was of Japanese descent, played in 1947, although now the league is almost three-quarters composed of black players. Outside of the major American sports, such figures as heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali – Cassius Clay as was – found their path to fame and fortune blocked by an establishment fear of a colossal minority figure who suggested that the white majority were somehow weaker.

Indeed, perhaps golfer Tiger Woods felt that he had to squeeze himself into a made-up ethnic grouping called Cabrinasian – reflecting his Caucasian, Black, Asian and Indian backgrounds – before he was accepted as one of the greatest practitioners of his sport.

To non-Americans, it certainly appears that the country has a major problem with minority sportsmen. Many have had to become non-ethnic in the eyes of their countrymen to be accepted into the national bosom – and that hasn’t always ended well. OJ Simpson, a star running back in American football in the 1960s and 70s, was called an ‘Uncle Tom’ by members of the black community for his acceptance by white America. He soon found that love was very temporary while he was being tried on the murder charges of his white former wife and her boyfriend.

And when Tommy Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze respectively in the 200m event at the Mexico Olympic in 1968 and raised their fists in a Black Power salute, they were expelled from the games, for performing “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit” and subsequently ostracised by the American athletic community.

For too long, it appears, African-American athletes in every sport have been valued for their skills but ignored the instant that they dared to express an opinion which ranged outside of the narrow purview of their sporting endeavour. But with a president in the White House who is looking to find enemies – real or false – wherever they may be, American sport could finally stand up and represent its athletes as much as it audiences.

Colin Kaepernick, whose initial protests kicked off the current situation, remains a free agent, having left the 49ers at the end of last season. All the team owners lining up to criticise the president this weekend could perhaps make a more important step in the coming days by lining up to sign up this highly talented young man who put his career and enormous earnings on the line to make an important political point.

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