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Watching football in Trumpland: Sports and the populist right

If you want to understand the power of right-wing populism, look no further than sports fandom

USA PoliticsCultureMedia

US President Donald Trump, joined by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, participates in pre-game ceremonies at the Army-Navy NCAA College football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. Official White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian/Flickr.

During Tuesday’s first American presidential debate, Donald Trump triumphantly declared that he had brought back Big Ten Football. Collegiate sports—in particular, football—generates close to a billion dollars in annual revenue alone, along with immense profit for advertisers and sponsors throughout the United States. It also boasts massive viewership.

A chaotic year of professional sports is wrapping up, intersecting with the upcoming election. On its face, these two things don’t have much in common, but sports in 2020 has been a political enterprise on all fronts (at least, more than usual), from the pandemic, to systemic racism. The rabidity of sports media and sports fandom has also escalated given the long COVID-induced break in play.

Sports, and especially sports fandom, has an audience that largely veers right. Trump’s declaration that he brought back football (for many, a seemingly meaningless triumph) was a very specific way the president spoke to his most ardent supporters.

If you want to understand the power of populism, look no further than sports fandom.

The ideology at the heart of professional sports promotes the idea that anyone can make it with hard work. It’s framed as one of the only ways to get a college scholarship without incurring massive debt. This fuels a cottage industry of feel good stories that promote a Protestant work ethic for those from marginalized and dispossessed backgrounds. Parasocial relationships between athletes and fans often come from a place of gratification—their struggle becomes your struggle. What’s more, sports provides an escapist fantasy that requires a degree of investment in players and their “storylines,” compounded by the excitement that these storylines are real.

These are picked up and promoted by a broader media culture that has followed the lead of sports journalism, contrasting catastrophe with stories of individual triumph, reinforcing narratives of rugged individualism in lieu of critiquing injustices such as economic inequality and racism. The ‘sportification’ of our media landscape has aimed to remove material questions from politics, treating it as spectacle. This trend has been influenced by the presentation style and messaging of sports media. Consequently, mainstream outlets have increasingly framed politics as an identitarian exercise. Just look at the way TSN, Canada’s most popular sports broadcaster, frames the historic Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens rivalry as one between French and English Canada.

These simplistic assertions are based in regionality—for example, an “elite” may be anyone who lives in a city, despite the economic gentrification of metropolitan centres. A divide is diagnosed, but disingenuously, and on base terms. “Elite” becomes shorthand for a regional centre and the people within, not necessarily the parasitic ruling class. The self-identification of “working class white” against a “metropolitan elite” persists outside of demographic realities.

Consider the attachment of sports fans to team names as a qualifier of identity. Take for example the recent Edmonton and Washington football team name changes and the subsequent fan reactions, or the attachment of the Los Angeles Lakers to a moniker that was inspired by the lakes of Minnesota (the team relocated from Minneapolis to California before the 1960-61 season). Many who advocated to keep the racist names of the Edmonton and Washington football teams were doing so in willful ignorance of the inherent white supremacy associated with those names, because they saw their own sense of community around them to be significantly more important than the legacy those names carried.

At the Richmond, Virginia training camp of the former Washington Redskins. Photo from Flickr.

Names and regionality form the basis of a community. This is particularly valuable in a capitalist system that is designed to alienate working people from community ties. College football in particular provides opportunities for small rural towns to assert themselves in the absence of other large-scale cultural investment or cache.

These communities are constructed in service of selling fans on the idea of capitalism and nationalism. Big Ten football, for example, is seen as a particular refuge for conservative values, given both college football’s importance for rural communities in red states, and its cultural gravitas in communities that see themselves as abandoned by traditional politics. This also occurs in Canada. The Saskatchewan Roughriders and the emergence of “Rider Nation” has become indispensable to forming a political identity in line with the politics of the right-wing Saskatchewan Party. The Roughriders as underdogs that emerge to assert themselves within the Canadian Football League is a reflection of Saskatchewan’s sense of self within confederation. Brad Wall’s 2016 victory speech invoked a metaphor that described Saskatchewan as a junior hockey team trying to compete for a Stanley Cup.

While largely resulting in political victories for the right, the leveraging of professional and collegiate sports to score points with constituents is a bipartisan endeavour, especially in the United States. Not subscribing to blatant militarism is a political third rail. Ceremonial first pitches in baseball are a common way politicians from all ends of the political spectrum ingratiate themselves with voters. Olympic sports, too, are an easy display of nationalism and a “national community” in service of accumulation. Sports and the media that drives it reinforce racial identities and hierarchies—few can forget when Fox News host Laura Ingraham told basketball superstar LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.”

Sports is obviously one of the biggest moneymakers in the world. It sits at an uncomfortable intersection of commerce and human achievement. The reliance on identity, or petty nationalism, relies on community to promote enterprise, and this is often removed from a team’s success. The capture of community in the service of commerce and broader pro-corporate ideology is a hallmark of right-wing populist politics.

Sports is a vessel that captures the public and social imagination and allows for the perpetuation of imperialist and white supremacist values due to its subservience to the capitalist logic of accumulation. This is not dissimilar from the manner in which right-wing politicians can leverage settler colonial and empty culture war dictates into party and voter identities. For example, Don Cherry being fired for racist statements becomes shorthand for a larger, constructed conflict around immigration and so-called “Canadian” values. Where you stand on the issue defines your political identity. Those identities can be leveraged into anger and action.

The backlash to perceived interruptions of privileged escapist bubbles and white supremacist narratives—such as Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee—is one that becomes an extension of broader culture war politics perpetuated by reactionary figures like Trump. Sports has narratives emergent with people of colour increasingly interrupting a white supremacist status quo, and vice-versa.

In Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan’s book Angrynomics, they describe a study in which they ran a large-scale data analysis of news articles referencing group anger. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this resulted in an overwhelming number of articles about enraged sports fans. The authors describe a function in which the angry fans, often a marginal group within a broader fandom, are the ones regulating and reinforcing their own side; they berate other fans for not cheering hard enough, they attack coaches and athletes for deviating from a commitment to the team program, and they boo players who speak out against their own teams. The anger of sports fans also provides a sense of control and power (consider fan backlash that leads to firings of coaches, for example).

Blyth and Lonergan ultimately diagnose this ‘nurtured anger’ as a powerful force that can be manipulated by power brokers for their own political gain. In turn, this anger can be used to help perpetuate programs of austerity and other reactionary policies. When a problem is diagnosed, the anger around that problem is exploited by politicians to further programs that enrich the ruling class. This is not at all different from the way working players and coaches take the brunt of the blame for managerial cost cutting that stalls teams from winning championships.

There’s also a demographic dimension that must be factored in. Football fans are largely 50 years of age and older. The majority of sports fans are also white and male. There is privilege associated with much of sports fandom.

Sports articulates several concepts starkly: bootstrap ideology, ruthless capitalism, imperialism, and an assertion of community. These four elements also form the basis of right-wing political ideology, one that trickles down from power brokers and politicians to voters, donors, and supporters. Fandom is predicated on supporting one group, while vehemently hating another.

Sports, due to its competitive nature and enormous economy, is also based in expressions of power. Domination is a function of playing a game where one person wins; sports and politics are two of the most visible spaces that function in terms of dominion. Both capture the public imagination. Despite the power that fuels both, they are reliant on underdog narratives that pitch small markets against big markets, despite both being the holdings of extremely wealthy, powerful people.

Those narratives form the backbone of manipulated discourse that often upholds and enforces violent white supremacy, settler colonial logic, and give rise to reactionary politics that express and reinforce themselves in increasingly aggressive ways. Left-wing populism follows a similar bent, but with the crucial difference of wealth. Broadly speaking, left-wing populism doesn’t have the endorsement of the media, of billionaires, and of capital at large.

Culture informs politics, and politics inform culture. The often confounding questions of why people vote against their own interests, get swept up in conspiracy theories, or rally behind politicians who only seek to further their own agenda has answers that can be difficult to articulate, given the complex intersections at play—reactionary politics must be understood before it is to be dismantled.

But to understand it, we don’t need to look much further than the field.

Abdul Malik is a writer and photographer based out of Edmonton, Alberta. His work has been featured in publications across the world, and his first written studio feature film is currently in post-production, coming to a theatre near you when it’s safe to do so. You can follow his work on Twitter @socialistraptor, look at his photography at abdulymalik.photo, or read his personal essays at abdulymalik.com.

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