There is no separation between sports and politics. No magic wall that separates games played in six- to seven-figure publicly funded stadiums from the bodies of government funding them.
Colin Kaepernick could disappear from the face of the planet tomorrow and professional sports in the United States would still be as politically charged as they are now.
After all, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback isnât the one giving politicians in the Bay Area free tickets to Golden State Warriors games. He isnât the one who wrote language into the facilities contracts of the Warriors, Oakland Aâs and Oakland Raiders stating that public officials can use free luxury box seats for a âgovernmental purpose,â including arena inspections and charity photo-ops. He also didnât tell them to take $250,000 in free tickets during the past three years to pay off contractors or to raise money on eBay
No, youâd rather stick your fingers in your ears, mumble some gibberish and pretend that none of this is going on while the fast-moving colors on your high-definition television collide with brain-addling force. Just realize that if youâre watching a game being played at the Minnesota Vikingsâ new home at U.S. Bank Stadium â built with help from a terrible deal that sucked up nearly $500 million in tax dollars â youâre watching the five-person Minnesota Sports Facility Authority (appointed by Minnesotaâs governor and Minneapolisâ mayor) get free use of a $200,000 to $300,000 luxury suite for âmarketing purposes.â
If your sport of choice is played in a stadium, arena or ballpark, chances are fairly high that there were some politics involved. When the Seattle City Council voted against using public money, and land and eminent domain law to build an arena â opting, instead, to keep paying off its current sports debt at an accelerated pace â there were politics involved. When politicians from Eastern Washington â which is basically subsidized by Western Washington and Seattleâs King County, but still threatens to secede from time to time â attempted to allow fans to carry guns into the Seahawksâ CenturyLink Field and other sports facilities, it was political. No, seriously: The move for secession and the stadium gun legislation share sponsors.
When Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star and now-former mayor of Sacramento, stopped the Sacramento Kings from moving to Seattle by pledging $255 million in public funds to build the team a new arena, it was political.
Even at the highest levels of government, sports and politics are inextricably linked. The National Football League has a federal antitrust exemption that dates back to the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961. Until last year, it was classified as a tax-exempt organization and only rescinded it to eliminate âdistraction,â including the public disclosure of its annual revenue and Commissioner Roger Goodellâs salary. The U.S. continues to consider the National Hockey League and the menâs and womenâs professional golf associations tax-exempt, while Major League Baseball has enjoyed an antitrust exemption similar to the NFLâs since 1922.
At every level, elected officials destroy any semblance of division between sports and politics by continuing to funnel public money and legal protections toward sports franchises, their owners and the leagues that oversee them. If thereâs any confusion about that lack of division, itâs because the public is often left out of the process in various cities, including Atlanta, Milwaukee and Las Vegas. Hundreds of millions of their dollars are put into play and taken away from true public goods and services, such as schools, without so much as a vote.
That leaves fans with two options: Keep yelling into the ether about sports being some sort of safe space for your poor, fragile little mind, or accept the fact that politics are a big part of major sports and that you should get a say in how sports leagues and franchises spend your money. This past Election Day, voters in San Diego and Arlington, Texas, reached two very different conclusions about using public money to build private sports facilities. It wasnât a matter of right or wrong, or even sports or politics, but an acknowledgment of the publicâs stake in the outcome and its much-appreciated role in the process.
Those fans got a vote because they and their representatives recognize that sports facilities have become a major public expense, and that the public needs some input in that level of investment. They donât see sports and politics as separate entities because they canât be: When leagues lobby Congress and local owners have politicians in their luxury suites, thereâs no way to âstick to sports.â
Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.