[There’s a lot happening in and around the world of sports these days. So for my annual Super Bowl series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of such issues. Leading up to this special weekend post on the genuinely revolutionary possibilities of sports!]
On what’s unquestionably true of sports, and what’s possible nonetheless.
The frustrations and perils of life under COVID, the presence of and debates over social and political activist movements, the limits of traditional organizations and structures and the need to rework them, the challenges facing higher education, the difficulty of balancing scientific knowledge with some of our most cherished shared rituals and beliefs—if my topics in this weeklong sports series feel like snapshots of where American (and global) society is overall in early 2021, there’s a good reason. At the end of the day, the world of sports is entirely part of our larger world, and so features and reflects that world’s realities and issues; to those who would argue that sports serve as an opiate of the masses or the like, I would respond that sports have never represented an escape from reality, as they contain it just as fully and inescapably as do all other parts of our society and culture. That doesn’t mean that we’re thinking about the hardest social issues at every moment we’re enjoying sports, no more than we can or should do so in every waking moment overall; just that sports and society are interconnected, always have been, and always will be.
Recognizing that reality might seem like an acknowledgement of sports’ limits, and in some ways of course it is. But the opposite can also be true—seeing sports as entirely interconnected with society opens up the possibility that sports can do more than reflect our world, that they can also (just as I would argue of cultural works) influence and change that world. It’s precisely for that reason that athletes from the Mexico City Olympians, Muhammad Ali, and Jackie Robinson to the University of Missouri football team, WNBA stars, and Colin Kaepernick (among many, many others) have sought to use their roles and prominence to both raise awareness of social issues and help effect social change. Moreover, Robinson’s story—and the influence that it had on the broader Civil Rights movement goal of integration—illustrates that sports communities can likewise model such changes. I would say the same of one of my favorite sports moments, the Chinese Educational Mission baseball team’s final 1881 game; while tragically their athletic achievement did not reverse the effects of the Chinese Exclusion era for most of those students (or many others), it did exemplify an alternative, inclusive vision of American society, one that could continue to affect the hundreds of thousands of Chinese Americans who remained part of that society despite this deeply discriminatory moment.
Those social and political activisms and influences offer particularly overt and striking examples of how sports can help change society. But I would say there are also subtler and equally significant such potential influences, and on this Super Bowl weekend want to highlight one from the world of football in 2021. Less than 20 years ago, the question of whether African American quarterbacks could succeed in the NFL was a frustratingly controversial one; here in 2021, the two prior NFL MVPs have been African American quarterbacks, and some of the league’s brightest young stars (from Kyler to Tua) as well as college football’s most exciting prospects (from Justin Fields and Kellen Mond to the boys’ and my favorite, Michael Penix Jr.) fit that description as well. And that reference to my sons is really the point I want to make here: for them, budding football fanatics that they are, African American quarterbacks are a given, not just a part of football but indeed an integral element of it. The more we see identities and communities represented in the breadth and depth of their realities, the harder it is to maintain limiting and stereotypical narratives—and sports, now as ever, comprise one of the best spaces in which revolutionary representation can be found.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Aspects of sports in 2021 you’d emphasize?