The University of Michigan’s Law School and Ford School of Public Policy hosted a discussion Friday on the ties between sports and politics. The event, titled “Activism and Sports”, analyzed the misinformation regarding protests at sporting events. The event was part of the Critical Race Theory Brown Bag Lunch Series that examines current policy and social issues in the United States.
Law professor Sherman J. Clark began the conversation with a question: “Why do so many people so often seem to misunderstand or mischaracterize the purpose or point of protests?”
Clark then explained why sports have significant social capital in activism, arguing against the separation of sports and politics.
“Sports have social salience and communicative impact whether you want them to or not,” Clark said. “The fact is, sports are entertainment, yeah, but they are not merely entertainment. They play some role and communicate something, whether that specific player wants to communicate that thing or not so just shut up isn’t really an option.”
Clark explained why many sports fans want to overlook politics when athletes peacefully demonstrate their political beliefs, such as when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality against marginalized communities and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos donned black gloves and raised their fists during the 1968 Summer Olympics ceremony.
Last year, Rackham student Dana Greene knelt on the Diag for nearly 24 hours to bring awareness to similar issues of racism and police brutality affecting the campus community. In an earlier intervew, Greene noted this act was not done to disrespect the flag, but to call attention to the injustices affecting Black people throughout the country.
“What Colin Kaepernick did last year, taking a knee, wasn’t to disrespect the troops. In fact, I think I’m honoring the troops right now because they gave me the right to do this. My father served in the military, and … this isn’t disrespecting the flag, this is honoring it,” Greene said. “If Black people can get killed in this country and not get any justice for their lives, for their murder, then that’s disrespecting the flag.”
According to Clark, sports seem apolitical because they eliminate social hierarchies, but sports is an environment where white and Black audiences converge, making sporting events an important space where Black people can have their voices heard.
“Once you’re on the playing field, the artificial hierarchies play less of a role, and we like that … But sports are also one of the few places in American societies where Black people and white people get together to do stuff,” Clark said. “And that's a good thing which shows some hopefulness for the human species — it’s artificial and narrow and doesn’t carry over the way we wish, but it’s good. But that means sports are one of the few places we can use to make that message.”
In an effort to facilitate group discussion, Clark asked attendees to consider what is truly the point of protest and called on individuals in the crowd to share their opinions. He summed up the main reasons under a few umbrella phrases: bringing attention to a problem, changing the status quo, letting audiences know how many people care, trying to deny complicity and educating others.
“One person you’re talking to (during a protest) is the doubters, the haters,” Clark said. “The other people you’re talking to are the supporters. You’re telling them you’re not alone, I’m with you.”
He also discussed the role privilege can play in amplifying certain voices and why it is imperative to use that power.
“You might find yourself well situated to explain things to people that other people aren’t as successful as making them understand,” Clark said. “Use your power or privilege to communicate the message.”
Clark talked about the role celebrities and well-known figures can have in spreading awareness of an issue. He explained the identities of celebrities and athletes intersect, and one can be an athlete and activist or a model and scholar rather than boxed into one personality type. Nike recently utilized Kapernick in an ad campaign urging athletes to "dream big". However, this generated pushback from those who thought such messaging was too politically charged.
“Sometimes what we need to be shown is how different traits fit together,” Clark said. “Sometimes we craft the visions of our lives in vessels that are too narrow … You get stuck with these limited views. Then an athlete or famous person shows you that you can mix a few things up.”
He closed the discussion by stating protests can be backed by many different motives, and it is vital to understand these motives before judging the demonstrations — whether in an athletic arena or not.
“I think that many of the failures of understanding, whether willful or inadvertent, (come from) the lack of clarity or awareness of the range of things people are trying to do when they protest,” Clark said.
Public Policy graduate student Shannon Weaver said these discussions are extremely important because there are false impression regarding the nature of protests.
“A lot of people misunderstand the point of protests and understanding those points can make protests more meaningful and reactions to protests more productive,” Weaver said.
LSA sophomore David Cohen said as a fan of sports, it is important to understand the intersection between sports, protests and activism.
“As someone who watches sports but does not always have as much as an appreciation for the protests as I’d like to, attending this discussion was an interesting way to get a new perspective on both the sporting events and the protests,” Cohen said.