This article is the third in a series about sports in American culture.
Q: How do sports relate to politics?
A: The following information is from an article by Kyle Green and Doug Hartman in an online website, the Society Pages. The article was titled “Politics and Sports: Strange, Secret Bedfellows.” President Barack Obama supports favorite teams, attends games and invites winning teams to the White House. But many presidents have preceded him in their relationships to sports. At one time, George W. Bush owned the Texas Rangers and was active in biking, running and working out. President Bill Clinton attended Arkansas Razorbacks games, played golf and was prominent in Major League Baseball negotiations. The first President Bush was outstanding in baseball at Yale. President Gerald Ford was an All-American center from Michigan. President John F. Kennedy was known for swimming fitness. President Teddy Roosevelt wrestled and boxed while in the White House.
Sports serve three main functions in society regarding political leadership. It provides a stage that is available to politicians for publicity. When politicians participate in or attend sporting events, there is a lot of coverage by the media. A second function of sports is to help reinforce a politician’s identity, reputation and social status. The involvement of a politician with sports shows that he or she shares a common passion with the public.
A third function of sports in relation to political leadership is to provide politicians with the fun and energy of sports, as well as the excitement and success. When the sports involved are popular and successful, the positive feelings transfer from the sports to the politicians. Then appearances of politicians at sports events contribute to the credibility and likeability of politicians. Thus, politicians associate with sports to sell themselves to a public that loves sports.
In the arena of cultural politics, sports have been important in creating and reinforcing collective identities and social solidarities, determining what is considered acceptable or natural, and defining which social problems need the most attention. Sports have been the answer of how to unify a society that was becoming increasingly more diverse, complicated and fragmented. Sports have thus provided an activity that is a basis of unity and collective identity. Superbowl Sunday has become, essentially and informally, a national holiday.
An example of the belief that sports can forge communities is the public support for public funding for professional sport stadiums. Studies have emphasized sports support the social status quo and thereby supports those politicians in office. Sports reflect current social classes and reinforce the current definitions of race, gender and sexuality.
Because of the prominence of sports in culture and the ways it is intertwined with many of the inequalities and differences in contemporary society, activists have viewed sports as a potential area for change. The most familiar meaning and use of politics and sports is using sports to call attention to inequalities and work toward social change through protests, activism and social movements.
Nevertheless, the political impact of sports seems to be more powerful in maintaining the social order and the status quo. Examples of this support is evident by the display of flags, inclusion of the national anthem, and the presence of military personal or fighter jets at sports events. Sports represent national pride and a belief in cultural superiority. The success of American athletes in the Olympics serves to celebrate athletic and moral excellence.
An area in which sports are closely woven together with politics is that of political dialogue, which contains many sports images and metaphors. The culture of sports competitive fair play matches the American concepts of fairness, justice and the good society.
Sports are associated by society with moral worth. The playing field is considered even, and players succeed due to talent, hard work and drive. On the playing field, team success depends on cohesion, cooperation, reciprocity and self-sacrifice. Success is a combination of individual effort, hard work and team play.
The idea that sports is somehow a microcosm of society makes sports a reference point for cultural ideals and values and for the sporting world to embody political and ideological viewpoints. Politicians who associate themselves with popular and successful sports events or teams benefit from the qualities attributed to those sports. However, sports language can undermine politics by taking the focus off real issues and infusing too much sports jargon.
The following information is from Inquiries Journal in an article titled “Not Just a Game: Sport and Society in the United States,” K.J. Macri, Volume 4, No. 08. This author believes sports embody community values and define the ethics and morals attributed to society as a whole. Since society places a positive value on competition, all sports and their participants are of value.
Sports are a universal human institution which instills a sense of meaning or belonging to many individuals. Because athletes benefit from fame, publicity and enormous salaries, they have a moral obligation to serve as role models for kids and to give back to communities, according to K.J. Macri.
The media has a great deal to do with which sports are popular because the media chooses which ones on which to focus attention. Media does choose those that draw the largest audiences and are the most popular. Sports have value because of the effect they have on society.
Competitive sports does embody many of the cultural and social values and ethics of society. However, winning necessitates losing, which generally is not a positive experience for those who lose.
• Next week’s article will continue the discussion about the importance of sports in society.
Judy Caprez is professor emeritus at Fort Hays State University.