The political economy of sports

The end of the semester and a couple of major life changes sit just on my horizon, so my writing on this blog has slowed considerably. But I do want to write something about the intersection of politics and sports, as I have been thinking a lot about this topic over the last several weeks for two reasons. One, the 2017-18 basketball season has just gotten underway in the US, but high-level American amateur basketball as organized through universities and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) is about to be ripped wide open by a far-reaching scandal involving tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars filtering between shoe companies, players, coaches, and an army of hangers-on, boosters, and ‘runners’. It promises to bring to light the more furtive and sordid practices that have helped men’s college basketball operate effectively as extensions of multinational athletics apparel companies and as the personal fiefdoms of multi-millionaire coaches who exist above ‘the law’, which is itself institutionalized in an enormous, unaccountable, and filthy rich NCAA bureaucracy. Now, however, the actual law is involved, in the form of ongoing FBI investigations into fraud and racketeering, and that means the new season is likely to be wracked by new revelations of wrongdoing and rapid shifts in the employment and legal fortunes of some of the game’s biggest names.

Two, though I am not really a professional football fan, I have followed the ongoing debate about the “taking a knee” protests Colin Kaepernick began last season in the National Football League and which continue this season, even as Kaepernick himself remains unsigned as a free agent quarterback (in a league desperately in need of some serious experience and a steadying hand at this most important position). Numerous NFL players, mostly but not only African-American, have followed the example Kaepernick set last year, kneeling rather than standing during the US national anthem at the beginning of every game to draw attention to police violence. This in turn has generated vigorous debate about free speech and protest, national and racial identity, and the place of politics in sports.

I have strong opinions about both of these issues, and want to address both in relation to the question of sports and the ‘field of play’ as a social, economic, and political space. Typically many sports fans might imagine that the sports we enjoy occur in a kind of vacuum, safely or at least clearly separate from the social, political, and economic processes that define much of the rest of our lives and over which we often have little if any control. The field, the court, the pitch, the track – these are spaces we might imagine as marked off from life as a crucible of meritocracy. The team or individual wins who scores the most points, runs, or goals, or who runs the fastest or jumps furthest or assembles the best round, and they do so within the clearly delineated rules of a specific sport. This all happens inside the lines that bound the edges of the sport’s space and separate it from a world of forces that are often unfair and arbitrary. Sports are also often dramatic, with outcomes hinging on spectacular and perhaps even heroic plays and players, and performed for (sometimes) large and intense audiences that help us feel a connection to something – a community of fellow fans, a place, a moment – that we can hold onto for much longer than the moment itself. And once the game is over, life goes on, what happens on the field is not generally a life or death struggle, winners can become losers the next time out, and vice versa, and the next play or the next game or the next season can contain the tragic and the sublime just as the game today or yesterday or last year did. And all within the white chalk lines where rules are clear and clearly enforced, where those who deserve to win almost always do so, and outcomes are defined by merit and performance measured objectively against the opponent and the scoreboard.

This is a convenient fiction, of course, as sports are not cut off from the rest of the world, but are deeply influenced by and shaping of their social contexts, which is why we seek out in sports the dramatic, epic, heroic, and tragic. Yet it is true, to some degree at least, that those who deserve to win often do, but we must take apart the idea of who deserves what when it comes to sports, and I think this is where we can start to see how social context shapes the space and spaces of sports, and vice versa. Deservingness is in the eye of the beholder, and fandom cuts a wide swath through reason and objective analysis when it comes to sports, but we could ask, who deserves to be on the field, to be allowed to play or coach or even watch, and for what reasons? More far-reaching forms of social exclusion and inclusion thus impact and shape the nature of sports by determining who is allowed or nor allowed in the places and spaces of sports.

For example, race was and still is a deep dividing line in American sports. African-American players were not allowed on the same field of play as white players in major team sports like basketball, football, and baseball, and were excluded from membership in those associations and private clubs where individual sports such as tennis and golf thrive not just as professional circuits but as everyday leisure activities. I don’t need to recount the long history of American sports being both an impediment to racial inclusion, by reproducing racist forms of exclusion found elsewhere in society, but also a forum for breaking down exclusion, by giving the lie to myths of white superiority and creating everyday spaces of social interaction across racial lines. (As an aside, some of my colleagues at Windsor have done an absolutely amazing job writing a publicly accessible history of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars, an all-Black baseball team in Chatham, Ontario, who won the provincial amateur baseball championship in 1934. Their website has extensive detail based on oral histories and archival materials, and TVO recently did a piece on the project.) For many observers, much of the debate about the appropriateness of Kaepernick’s protest centers on his race; in other words, if he were white, or at least not African-American, the protests he helped start at the beginning of games would not be cast as inappropriate, or as unpatriotic, or as “adding politics” into football.

But, rather than pontificate at length with my long-winded opinions about the two examples I touched on at the beginning of this post, I want instead to just identify a couple of burning questions about the places and spaces where sports, politics, and political economy do intersect and shape each other.

First, if the NFL and the football field, locker room, and practice facility are all workplaces, then what impact would Kaepernick’s grievance alleging collusion among NFL team owners have on the league and on the ability of players to make political statements that may be unpopular or contrary to those held by team owners for whom they work? This relates back to my more general interest in the body and the workplace, which I discussed a few posts back. Players in professional sports leagues don’t play because it’s a fun hobby. It is a job, and taxing, bone breaking, exhausting one at that, and players in the major sports leagues are unionized with rights in the workplace. So the field of play and many associated spaces like locker rooms, practice facilities, team planes and buses, are all governed by webs of collective agreements, individual contracts, and certain expectations of professional conduct. These run up against the rights of those individuals as private citizens working for multi-million dollar brands in the form of professional sports leagues and specific teams. Is Kaepernick still unsigned this football season because team owners have made a silent agreement to not hire him to punish him for his outspoken politics? Or is it simply that his outspoken politics mean have diminished his value in the quarterback market because teams don’t want to deal with the ensuing PR issues, and it’s just “parallel behavior” by all the team owners? The football field as workplace is thus connected to the legal space of the arbitrator’s office, and in turn linked to thousands of other kinds of workplaces all governed by US labor relations legislation and protections. It is deep into the season now though and it is increasingly unlikely that Kaepernick will play this year, but he may still be owed a salary if his grievance is upheld.

Second, what becomes of high-level US college basketball if the FBI investigations into the big money associations between coaches, show company reps, and players uncovers much more widespread rule bending and law breaking and has to rip the system apart root and branch? The spaces of men’s college basketball are not simply the basketball court, the classroom, and the dorm, as you might expect with university students engaged in amateur athletics. The FBI’s investigation into fraud and racketeering in the sport has demonstrated that the social and economic connections that make the sport are equally transacted in Las Vegas hotel rooms; back rooms, men’s bathrooms, and hallways at sponsored tournaments (many NCAA rules enforcement staff are women, so coaches and players often have recruiting discussions in the bathroom at special summer tournaments, but I cannot find the old link on ESPN.com that detailed this); and the homes of wealthy ‘boosters’ (fans and alumni with deep pockets and a desire to be deeply involved in a program). I could go on and on about the downfall of University of Louisville men’s basketball head coach Rick Pitino, who was fired in October, along with long-time university athletics director Tom Jurich, as he is the highest-profile name thus far linked (allegedly) to the payment scheme that sent tens of thousands of dollars to recruits and companies from shoe companies in exchange for preferential access to players by agents and company reps. This kind of payment system, as some well-known commentators have stated, has been the focus of rumors throughout the sport for a long time, seemingly a kind of open secret that no one wanted to believe. What people want to believe is that college sports as organized through the NCAA are the pinnacle of amateur athletics, integrated into the university system so that, in an ideal that is at least a century and a half old, both mind and body are trained in a holistic university experience. Money has been a driving factor in this for along, long time as well though, and the ideal of amateurism always runs up against the realities of sports gambling, the desire for compensation as players give their time and bodies to their teams, and the lucrative investments made in players, coaches, infrastructure, and the fan experience. I went to the men’s Final Four in Phoenix in early April, the culmination of the college basketball season and the final weekend of the championship tournament. Millions of dollars were pumped into the local economy as people bought tickets, hotel rooms, merchandise, and food. Over 70,000 people attended three basketball games played in a domed football stadium in suburban Phoenix, which was finished in 2006 and cost almost $500 million to build. Similarly, the city of Louisville built a new downtown arena, whose main user is the university’s men’s basketball team, in 2010 for about $250 million. If the NCAA is forced to take a hard line on the university for rules infractions by that team, or if the FBI finds more evidence to prosecute people associated with the team, it is possible (though unlikely, given the NCAA’s track record of late) that the NCAA would consider serious penalties against the team, such as loss of scholarships, tournament bans, or even the ‘death penalty,’ in which a team is not allowed to compete at all for a year or two. Any of those would likely affect the performance of the team and negatively impact the attendance at the arena, which has been built at considerable public and private cost. What becomes of this massive investment in new downtown spaces if the team itself is affected by the actions of interconnected players, coaches, shoe companies, and others?

Photos above: Kaepernick photo from Twitter; FBI flowchart photo from Sports Illustrated; Final Four photo taken by me