Professional Sports as a Mirror for Society: Lessons from 2021
After a delay of twelve months on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, professional sporting events have finally resumed in 2021. These large sporting events have provided us with an opportunity to not just cheer on our favourite athletes and learn about a variety of sports, it has highlighted some key issues that are still prevalent in our societies and invite us to reflect on their impact. Sexism, racism, mental health stigma, ableism and economic greed have been on full display right alongside athletic excellence.
There is an old saying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. To anyone who is politically and socially engaged, this is obvious when examining the manner in which certain events surrounding sports in 2021 unfolded. Here are a few of note:
1. Racism is alive, well and on display despite right wing protests to the contrary.
This is the most obvious issue which spans multiple sporting events and highlights the need for an international reckoning on race-based prejudice. There have been a number of high-profile athletes who have brought this issue to the fore in 2021 alone. This legacy of racist thought has a very long history in numerous countries globally however, in order to avoid a 10,000-word piece, those which occurred in 2021 will be the focus as there have been so many already since the resumption of sports in mid-2021.
The appalling racist attacks and threats of violence towards the Black members of the English soccer team at the finals of the Euro 2020 for simply not managing to score goals in a high stress situation was a clear indication that despite their protests to the contrary, the former colonial power that is England is just as racist as ever. The fact that these players managed to hold off the Italian team from scoring until penalty kicks were necessary to determine a winner was completely lost on the English fans. The fact that in a game there must be a loser and a winner is also something that seems to have escaped their attention. The fans of soccer in the UK have been known to engage in rioting and other anti-social behaviours giving truth to the saying "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans… " by Winston Churchill.
Then there is the expected but nevertheless gross behaviour of known racist and right wing media darling Megyn Kelly who actively bullied a young Naomi Osaka, a woman a fraction of her age, for appearing on a prominent magazine cover after bowing out of a major tennis tournament to attend to her mental health. Kelly then proceeded to whine on social media because Osaka exercised her right to set boundaries and blocked her.
If it were only a once relevant right winger and some poorly behaved, sore losers from a country with a penchant for genocide, it would be enough. However, there is far more in regard to institutions and their treatment of black athletes. Two teenaged, female Namibian runners were told they could not compete in the Olympics in Tokyo because of their high testosterone levels which made them “ineligible”. As far as medicine is concerned, this link between testosterone and athleticism is a myth as is evident here. Women do produce testosterone whether they are “masculine” in appearance or not. This article from Harvard Medical School explains this clearly. Indeed, the fact that Caster Semenya, (the reason this myth was given fuel in sports) a Black, African woman dominated her sport for years over competitors had to be explained in terms to make the competition “fair” to these obviously less talented athletes who competed against her.
Additionally, a Senegalese percussionist was pulled from the Tokyo opening ceremony for being “African”. The argument was made that the organizers did not want to open this door and then be obligated to showcase other diverse groups as well. So much for inclusivity and diversity in developed countries. Undoubtedly, most can agree that this was the most boring opening ceremony for the Olympics in a number of years, certainly in the 43 years that I have existed on earth. Perhaps a little “colour” would have made a difference to this snorefest which has received a lot of negative reviews.
2. So is sexism
What has been obvious this Olympics is the fact that women do not have the right to “modesty” in professional sports. This is not new but this time, it was not business as usual. Although being billed as the “first gender equal” games ever, there have been a number of cases in which one can see that this has been false advertising.
Firstly, the most obvious issue regarding blatant sexism at the Olympics is the attire that female athletes are required to wear in competition which is starkly different from that worn by male counterparts. Two obvious examples are the Norwegian beach volleyball team and the German gymnastics team both of whom were criticized for daring to choose comfort over revealing fashion.
This is not new as we all remember Serena Williams’ “controversial attire” in 2018 which she needed to wear for medical reasons. It is well established that female athletes are sexualized in ways that their male counterparts are not. If we are ever to truly achieve gender equality, we have to stop this humiliating practice.
3. Mental health stigma is now openly discussed and that is positive!
Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps and Serena Williams have all been public about their desire to protect their mental health. There are many more prominent athletes who have also been open about their struggles (see here). What has been interesting is the outrage of the public over the decision on the part of these athletes to protect themselves and their peace.
What we as the public need to remember is that these athletes do not BELONG to us. They do not exist solely for our entertainment as they are not Roman gladiators. We the fans need to remember that in exactly the same way that we occasionally take “sick days” from work and get very upset when people question our desire to attend to our health, so do professional athletes. For professional athletes, their PROFESSION is athletics. It is not an identity in the same way that our occupations are not our entire identity. We need to practice giving public figures the same degree of grace and compassion that we would extend to our loved ones.
4. The idea that “greed is good” prevails.
Let us be honest, sports are big business. This is why, like any other money-making venture, the capitalist agenda plays such a huge role in so many aspects of professional sports, usually in ways that cause stress to athletes. If we go back to the change to track and field rules which now disqualifies athletes for false starting and examine the rationale for doing so, we can see how much the economic bottom line has completely ignored the human experience of nerves before a big event.
A large component of the decision to implement this rule was the fact that media houses “ran over schedule” to broadcast races when athletes false started. How the media has been able to have this much power and influence over something they should be simply reporting defies logic. It illustrates the idea that we can monetize anything without ever having to consider the impact on the people being monetized.
5. Paralympians do not like being called “inspirational” and prefer instead to just be seen as athletes.
The lead up to the 2020 Paralympic Games saw many Paralympians rejecting the notion that they are “inspirational” or “unusual” in any way. Their point is that in an ableist society, the assumption will always be that people with disabilities are “incapable”. This thinking needs to stop especially since the community branded as “inspiring” simply despises being referred to in this manner and views it as a microaggression. Here is a video which aired in the lead up to Rio 2016 which challenges this view and an article explaining it.
Instead, we the public need to start pushing for greater representation so that not only can the community of people with disabilities see themselves represented as the complex human beings they are, but that familiarity with seeing them as such becomes the norm for those who do not have disabilities. If we are able to achieve this, we can collectively dismantle ableist thought as most prejudices are based on a lack of familiarity with the group being devalued.
As we continue to enjoy professional sports again, it is important to remember that sports can be used to help us look at ourselves in honest ways. Sports have always been political, despite what those whose privilege is threatened would have us believe. Sports has become very profitable for a few at the expense of the athletes and, as the public, we have an ethical imperative to check those who benefit from athletes’ labour to ensure that the people actually doing the work are respected and protected.
May we continue to cheer for our teams and fly our flags with pride but, may we also develop a more critical eye on the world of sports.