Tuesday 26 September 2017

Comment - Separating sport and politics has only ever been a wishful pipe dream

West Brom's James McClean
West Brom's James McClean

Jack O'Toole

The Green Monster at Boston’s Fenway Park is one of the most iconic landmarks in Major League professional baseball.

At 11.33 m high, the Monster is a gigantic wall that sits 94.48 metres away from Fenway’s historic home plate.

Behind home plate, and just outside of the stadium, is a small street called Yawkey Way, named after former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey.

Yawkey is important because he was famously the last team owner in professional baseball to sign a black player.

The Red Sox owner finally caved in 1959 when he signed Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green, the first black player to ever play for the Red Sox, 12 years after Jackie Robinson had first broke baseball's colour line with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But just 14 years earlier in April 1945, the Red Sox had reluctantly held a trial for three Negro leagues stars — Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams. The trio trialed for the Red Sox in front of Yawkey, Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins, and Red Sox manager Joe Cronin.

As their trial session neared its final stages, a voice bellowed from the Grandstand: “Get those niggers off the field!”

The voice was never identified although Clif Keane, a sportswriter for The Boston Globe, later said in Howard Bryant’s book “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston” that he believed the voice to be Yawkey’s.

If These Walls Could Talk

The Monster was there for Robinson, Jethroe and Williams trial, it was on the edge of the field but it also may have been lurking somewhere in the stands.

The Green Monster has been there ever since the original construction of Fenway Park in 1912, where it was known simply as ‘The Wall’.

It’s seen everything from Babe Ruth to David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz, but on Wednesday during the Red Sox game with the Oakland Athletics, it saw a large banner hang over its frame.

The banner read “Racism is as American as baseball”. The black and white banner hung from a wall where three black players were once told to get off the field for the colour of their skin.

Where Baltimore Orioles All-Star center fielder Adam Jones was recently berated by racist taunts and had a bag of peanuts thrown at him only four months ago.

The banner was confronting and was removed by stadium security, but it couldn’t be removed from the echo chambers of social media.

It was out there, and in the unforgiving land of Facebook and Twitter, it was met by the same response that most socially conscious ploys in sports are now greeted with, “keep sports and politics separate”.

An Ideal Fantasy

“Politics have consumed the minds of everyone these days it feels like. I can't watch a baseball game, a sitcom, or even a comic strip without it being political. I'm sick of it and miss the days when we could agree to disagree and not get offended by every little thing people say and do,” said one commenter.

“I remember when protesters and streakers and attention-seekers were not shown so as to not encourage more behavior like this. Protest on your own time, in your own location,” said another.

“Let's keep politics out of sports. Sports is all about human accomplishments. Politics are about our failures. Don't mix them together,” said another, and so on and so forth.

Looking for profound meaning and a deeper understanding in a comment section is a bit like looking for eternal guidance by opening fortune cookies at your local Chinese restaurant. Try as you may, your time and energy may be better spent elsewhere.

But sport and politics have always been inextricably linked. From Adolf Hitler’s undeniable influence over the 1936 Olympics to Neymar’s recent Qatari orchestrated move to Paris Saint-Germain, politics always has been, and most likely always will, play a central role in sport.

Sport reflects society and society reflects sport, but the idealistic idea that one can be separated from the other is nonsensical according to Dr Alan Bairner, Professor of Sport and Social Theory at Loughborough University.

“I think there is a genuine idealism on the part of some people and I think that it works for some individuals in that particular way,” said Dr. Bairner of those people that wish to disassociate sport with politics.

“But I think it would be foolish to think that that is the whole picture and I think that people who pursue that kind of argument often do try to pretend that that is the complete picture, and that simply by playing sport you escape politics and you escape the awful things in the world.

“We know that sport has been riddled with racism, has been riddled with sexism, homophobia and so on, so even in that respect you don’t escape from these things by playing sport.

“In fact, often sport is the activity that sheds the most light on them and sometimes it’s very influential in combating things like racism, sexism and homophobia as they persist.”

But politics in sport is not just some vehicle that has bulldozed its way through the gates of American sport, it has pervaded Irish sport as well.

Rory McIlroy’s decision to sit out the 2016 Rio Olympics and refusing to be put into a position where he had to choose between representing Great Britain or Ireland.

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen calling on FIFA to arrange a World Cup play-off replay between Ireland and France after Thierry Henry’s double handball ultimately denied Ireland entry to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

West Bromwich Albion winger James McClean’s annual refusal to wear the poppy. We are far from immune to these types of issues.

Bairner added that he believed that in McClean's case, the Ireland winger should have received more support from his fellow footballers for his refusal to wear the poppy (a symbol of commemoration for those that have died in battle), but that in taking the stance that he took, he raised more awareness for his cause than any academic ever could.

“I think every now and again it’s great when a person in professional sport is willing to step outside of that notion that sport should never be politicised," added Bairner.

"There are things that are more important than sport, but sport is a very good vehicle for pursuing some of our demands because so many people watch it.

“A protest by one sportsperson on television and in front of 80,000 people, or however many people there are, is an incredibly powerful gesture.

“But unfortunately most sportspeople and most athletes would rather keep their nose out of these things.

“Every now and again someone stands up, and wants to make a gesture, but closer to home of course, there’s the whole poppy remembrance business.

“That again is significant. My own feeling is that the whole poppy business has been politicised to an even greater extent than it should, in that buying a poppy you’re not just remembering the dead of previous conflict, but that you are in a sense being interpreted as supporting what goes on in other battlefields, notably of course Iraq.

“When James McClean made his gesture of course it was in a sense from a different point of view as a Derryman and so on, I don’t think he got enough support from that from other professional footballers.

“Maybe some don’t agree with them but I think in the UK as a whole there are a lot of people that are fairly suspicious of what the whole poppy business is all about.

“Maybe McClean chose one of the best forums to do this kind of thing because it made news. If I didn’t wear a poppy to work, which I don’t, nobody is interested. He was able to get a lot of publicity for that, and of course, a lot of it adverse publicity.

“He’s been harshly treated by football fans ever since in England.”

The poppy issue drove McClean out of Sunderland after a man threw his own jersey back at him after the former Black Cat had given the shirt to his son, before other fans spat at his car later that day.

McClean has been routinely heckled and abused in football stadiums around the UK ever since but he still has his job as a professional footballer.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick does not, after he routinely knelt during the American national anthem last season in protest of racial injustices.

Muhammad Ali was once stripped of his Heavyweight title and robbed of three years of his prime for refusing conscription to the Vietnam War.

England forward Eni Aluko has not been selected for the England national team ever since she complained to the FA last year of "bullying and harassment" from England boss Mark Sampson.

Taking a stand has its costs but its a small price to pay if it makes us confront some of the harsher realities about our societies. The monster that continues to look down on us from the wall.

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport