Pro sports as political propaganda
// Gurpreet Kambo

It's said that politics don’t mix well with pretty much anything, really, except more politics. Whether they are from the realm of music, religion, or sports, for many, hearing nonpolitical figures express their political views is mentally distressing. How many times have you heard someone say that they’d like U2, if they’d “just stick to the music”? Musical taste and specifics of politics aside, at least U2 has the guts to provide the public with a point of view, and to challenge their fans to critically engage with their universe.

However, those who believe that musicians, athletes, and other entertainment celebrities should “stick to music” (or whatever their area is) are under a misconception. The music/movies/athletes that they consider to be apolitical quite simply are not, because there is no such thing as being apolitical. Those that are perceived this way are merely acquiescing to the current norms and social values of their art and of their society.

Canadians would appear to prefer their national pastime – hockey – this way as well. Apart from xenophobic boors such as Don Cherry, hockey players and others connected to hockey have, for the most part, remained apolitical. Most recently, Tim Thomas, of the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, was skewered by the Boston media for declining to visit the White House in the annual event commemorating the cup winning team.

“I believe the federal government has grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties, and property of the people,” he said, in a statement to the media. “Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a free citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country.”

While Thomas, who is believed to be a Tea Party supporter, and other athletes such as Muhammed Ali need to be commended for taking a stand for what they believe in (Ali was not only a boxing maverick in his day, but was one of the most important people in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements), their critics labour under the fallacious notion that, without these politically-minded athletes, sports are inherently non-political.

This is, in fact, the way that they are presented to the public. It would appear that the extent of political controversy in NHL hockey would be the length of suspensions given to players who commit infractions, and/or the occasional lockout/conflict by the NHL Player’s Assocation and the league.

Thomas’ conspicuous absence from the White House also lays bare the question – what in the world does a visit by a sports team have to do with Obama stewarding the American state? Clearly this has nothing to do with good governance, and all to do with garnering favourable press for the President by tying his image with the goodwill of champion athletes. Stephen Harper employs a similar tactic – in an effort to not come across as the cold and calculating politician that he actually seems to be, he makes every effort to have his picture taken at hockey games, in between cat inspired photo shoots and singing Beatles songs.

However, these are merely simple examples of a complex problem. Despite the so-called “non-political” nature of professional sports, politicians have often sought to tie not only their personal public image, as noted above, but also their broader ideology with the sports teams that have captured people’s hearts. They recognize the inherent cultural (and political) influence of sport, especially as captured by the all-pervading modern media machine.

“Historians have long known that you can learn alot about the wider culture by looking at sports culture,” said Dave Zirin, sports writer with the Nation. “Sports have always had an important social function Sports culture shapes cultural attitudes, norms, and power arrangements.”

One of the most notable instances of sports being used to advance a political ideology was at the 1936 Olympics, which was widely noted as being the coming-out party for the Nazis on the world stage. Hans von Tschammer, head of the Reich sports office, believed sports to be a "way to weed out the weak, Jewish, and other undesirables."

On a very abstract level, professional competitive sport is one of the most pure and perfect reinforcements of the modern military/capitalist state that we live in. Although it is often said that the concept of “competition” is a natural state for humans, this concept can be considered capitalist propaganda in itself, competition being the central ethos of capitalism.

Ljubodrag Simonovic, a Yugoslavian philosopher and former star athlete, called sport the “religion of capitalism,” and writes, “It is [in sport] that the contest comes down to a struggle for survival and domination which is completely in line with the dominant spirit of capitalism: the stronger go on, the weaker are eliminated. The purpose of sport is not the development of play, but the preservation of the ruling order.”

Militarism, an ideology that is essential to the modern nation-state, also ties in neatly to competitive sport. In both, the themes of masculinity and dominance over one’s opponent are conveniently given central roles in the narrative. Professional sports culture often appropriates the language of the military (ie. referring to soldiers as athletes), with the implication being that “going to war” is inherently an honourable occupation.

Clearly, sports and politics are already deeply intertwined in a way that seems completely normal and natural. Those that point this contradiction out are the ones that are accused of “bringing politics into it.”

While professional sports in Canada aren’t as stridently politicized as they are in the U.S., hockey, the national pastime, is becoming increasingly moreso, on many tangible levels. Consider the new logo of the Winnipeg Jets, which is extremely similar to the former logo of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Canadian Forces actually helped design it, as well – the kind of publicity in a hockey town that you can’t replicate with a typical ad campaign.

The CBC has played its part as well in slipping military propaganda into your hockey kool-aid: in 2010, Hockey Night in Canada had Don Cherry and Minister Peter Mckay head to Afghanistan, where Cherry even fired a live artillery round, saying, “Take that, Taliban.”

Despite the “non-political” nature of professional sports, just like most all other types of mass media entertainment, it comes embedded with deeply political messages that construct and inform our cultural and societal norms (and surely, not all of them are objectionable). However, as consumers of mass media entertainment, we must remain critical, and deconstruct what these messages are that are being embedded in our seemingly innocuous sports, movies, and music.

//Gurpreet Kambo, news editor
//Graphics by Stefan Tosheff

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com