Throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, sports have been at the center of much public and private discussion in the United States (U.S.) and around the world. For example, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was “at the forefront” of spreading awareness about the pandemic in the U.S., particularly when players began contracting and spreading the virus amongst themselves. In the early stages of the spread of the virus, the state of Florida declared World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to be an “essential business” – allowing for the production of professional wrestling matches to continue taking place as much of the world adopted different stay-at-home practices. U.S. President Donald Trump even spoke with several sport commissioners, owners, and executives to discuss the pending “return” of sports and leading the “re-opening” of the U.S. economy. But why has sport occupied such a high-profile role during this time and how does it relate to the racialization of COVID-19? In this blog post, I explore these questions and other nuances of sport as a vehicle for racial politics in the U.S.
This institution of sport is cloaked by what sociologist Jay Coakley referred to as the Great Sport Myth (GSM). The GSM is comprised of three major beliefs that lead to a widely accepted and evangelical view of sport and sporting organizations: (1) sport is inherently pure and good; (2) the purity of sport is transmitted to those who play or consume it; and (3) sport inevitably leads to individual and community development. Due to widespread belief in the GSM, most people passively accept sport as a legitimate institution and often fail to consider the central role sport plays in political and economic processes. In other words, people buy sport – figuratively and literally.
The reality of elite sport is that it is central to the politics of domination and has been for millennia. Because it is shrouded in the larger myths of purity, meritocracy, and equal opportunity – and other “American” tropes – elite white men in the U.S. have explicitly used sport as a cover for colonial projects (domestically and internationally) for several decades. For example, Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Corp, has discussed how “sport, with a particular emphasis on football, has been his ‘battering ram’ to establish the competitive success of his media properties.” Still, even with the often-overt ownership of sporting colonialism, people buy sport. This is why most people passively accept its return – or at least await its return with curiosity. When will sports come back? In what capacity will they return? What will be the precautions taken when they do return? These are the questions many individuals with an interest in sport are currently asking. However, few are questioning the return of sport altogether. Few people are asking about the political ramifications of a sporting return amid COVID-19. Who is it that controls sport? Why is sport – beyond its mythical potency – being touted as an economic spearhead by Donald Trump? These are essential questions that must be explored.
Who Controls Elite Sport?
My dissertation research highlighted various aspects of how elite sport is overwhelmingly controlled by a while male oligopoly. This research adopted a perspective that necessarily reached beyond the confines of sport to gain a deeper understanding of the role sport plays in contemporary society. NFL team owners, for example, represent a small network of large corporations that use the NFL as an advertising platform for legitimating otherwise illegitimate politics. From this perspective, any discussion of “the shield” (a reference to the league’s logo design) becomes less about the brand of the league and more about a protected assault on the world. The economic sectors represented by NFL ownership alone include politics, real estate, construction, gambling, technology, transportation, oil and gas, hospitality, and several other elite sport leagues/teams that all collapse in on one another in terms of connectivity. These owners collectively use the NFL to prop up their own capitalist interests while also using the league as a vehicle for political promotion – a set of politics which were substantially challenged in recent years by Kaepernick and many others who protested against police brutality and systemic oppression. Accordingly, elite white men like Trump are likely to continue pushing for sport to lead the way in “re-opening” the U.S. economy because of its dual function as a cultural opiate and its central location in the politics of white patriarchal domination. Still, there is another side to this coin which should be teased out to better understand the ramifications of this suicidal sporting mission – especially as it relates to the labor needed for sports to “return.”
The workers that produce the labor necessary for the ongoing production of elite sport are overwhelmingly comprised of people of color. From athletes to facility workers to gameday parking staff, the sport industry relies on a labor force that is much more racially diverse than the general U.S. population. Outside of a small group of elite (and mostly male) professional athletes, the sport industry is notorious for relying on underpaid labor, long hours, seasonal jobs, and jobs without access to benefits (e.g., health insurance). Many of the workers which sport organizations rely on are the first to lose their jobs in the midst of a crisis, as was witnessed with the onset of COVID-19 – notable in this recent mass layoff was a wanton lack of support for these employees by multi-billion dollar sport organizations and their “owners.” And yet, many of these individuals are now being asked to risk their lives in a “return” process of sport where the very voices of those who sport depends upon have been silenced. Considering, for example, how Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the virus, jumpstarting the sport industry puts these communities directly in the line of fire.
Whether ignorant of these implications or complicit in them, many white Americans remain eerily silent on the “restarting” of sport. But perhaps this white silence at the prospect of thousands of fellow Americans losing their lives is normal. It certainly isn’t the first time white Americans have tacitly (or violently) accepted the eugenics approach. In fact, research shows that erasure may even be an integral aspect of the dominant white racial frame.
Racial Framing & Black Death
Research from scholar and philosopher Tommy Curry has emphasized the fixation on and colonization of Black male bodies in the U.S. (and European history more broadly). This has particularly been the case when it comes to the projection of violence and death; European institutions developed with an inherent reliance on the death of Black people, and Black boys and men in particular:
“…racism is not simply racial antipathy, but the power whites assert over the world, thereby making Black life inconsequential in its rush to acquire ownership over reality; a dynamic creating the orders of knowledge as an extension of the order of society necessary to maintain anti-Blackness and preserve white supremacy.”
This critical work by Curry applies to the U.S. sporting context, both in terms of its routine operation and in terms of its future agenda beyond COVID-19. In an upcoming book chapter co-authored with Scott Brooks and Stacey Flores, we explore the “disposability” of Black male bodies in American youth basketball. This violence against Black (male) bodies lays at the core of today’s sport industry, especially with “elite” leagues such as the NBA, NFL, and NCAA. Several major books have highlighted various aspects of this colonial practice, including William Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves and Billy Hawkins’s The New Plantation.
However, this problem extends well beyond athletes and the dangers to which they are subjected as much of the sporting workforce is now being pressured to take on the risk of COVID-19 for the economic benefit of an elite faction of U.S. society. Now heightened, the white-framed inconsequentiality of Black life remains a foundational axiom for the resurgence of the sporting project. As political and economic leaders continue to push for the return of sport and sport events, I am reminded of what Tim Wise recently stated on the racial politics of “ending” COVID-19 lockdowns too soon:
“This is about a soft Civil War… This is about attempting to use mass death as a wedge issue and a culture war that this president wants to wage on behalf of whiteness.”
In sport, there are significant differences between individual sports and even greater differences between different levels of sport (e.g., professional, collegiate, recreational, etc.). However, there are two critically important realities when it comes to “re-opening” the U.S. economy and sport leagues such as the NFL, NBA, WWE, and NCAA, among others. The first important reality is that elite white men rule undemocratically and use sport to buttress political stratifications founded on the triple helix of systemic racism, classism, and sexism. This is a material, ideological, and even spiritual project that is central to elite white male dominance in the U.S. The second reality of the sport industry is that the labor propping up elite sport leagues relies heavily on Americans of color and other white working class Americans. As such, the impact of sport’s return will be felt more deeply by Americans of color when it comes to the continued spread of the virus. The cultural quest to “Make Sport Great Again” is being weaponized by elites as the racial project of neoliberalism seeks to re-establish its footing. And the likely result of such action will be the death of several thousand Americans of color – a reality that many white Americans (across the political spectrum) appear to be okay with. Indeed, millions of Americans are ready to embrace some sort of return to sport. For some, this process will signal a return to normal. For many others, it just means more of Racist America.
Anthony J. Weems, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Western Carolina University. His research focus is on the political economy of sport with a particular emphasis on leadership, policy development, and (in)equity.