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But It's Just a Game

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The Politics in Your Super Bowl

• January 30, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Richard Sherman. (Photo: Associated Press)

While it might seem like politics have crept into Sunday’s match-up between the Broncos and the Seahawks, they’ve always been there. It just depends on whether or not we want to see them.

On Sunday, there will be a football game played in a stadium just a short train ride from the Media Capital of the World. One team comes from a city with a high minimum wage that’s also the birthplace of Starbucks. The other team’s home is the symbolic center of America’s cowboy West. One team’s star player hails from Compton, wears his hair in dreadlocks, and is loud and outspoken on both issues of race and the question of whether he is the best cornerback in the NFL. (His answer: yes.) His counterpart is a white southerner, often praised for a workman-like, no-nonsense approach to football, just football, who also owns multiple Papa John’s franchises.

There are no rivalries in American sports based on the two sides of a Protestant/Catholic divide or a country’s monarchical center and its separatist northwest. No team was formed in response to another’s xenophobic recruitment policy. And no athletes have used their influence to help end a civil war.

So if you look at it a certain way, Sunday’s Super Bowl match-up might seem like the most politically-divisive American sporting event in recent memory.

LAST SUNDAY, AS YOU no doubt have heard by now, Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman spoke to Fox reporter Erin Andrews immediately after a 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game:

The day after the game (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) saw a record set for the number of times the word “thug” was used on cable TV. People were horrible on the Internet. The values of sportsmanship in America were questioned. Another conversation about race in America devolved into the “you’re racist for thinking I’m a racist” rhetoric that it often does. And, love him or hate him, most of America now knows who Richard Sherman is.

“Players are coached to speak to the media in non-offensive ways,” says Jeffrey De Oca, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, in an email. “So it is rare to have a Muhammad Ali type of athlete. In some ways Sherman approximates Ali. His ability to use language to get into the heads of competitors is brilliant. He speaks candidly and spontaneously. He is championed by young people, especially youth of color. However, he is not Ali, at least not yet.”

Sherman didn’t hesitate to respond to his critics, first writing a column for Sports Illustrated, and then speaking at a press conference a few days after the win over San Francisco:

The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays. Because they know. … There was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey, they just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that, and said, “Oh man, I’m the thug? What’s going on here?”

In a country with a black president and in which the opposition party’s voter base is comprised of 88 percent white people, race is a political issue. It just is. While one political party’s Twitter account might claim otherwise, most Americans agree that work still needs to be done if racial equality is ever to exist in this country.

“There is little doubt that the response to Richard Sherman spotlights racial politics and, more specifically, our culture’s inability to talk productively about race,” says Michael Butterworth, a professor of rhetoric at Ohio University, in an email. “As with many other issues, we often see racism defined in strict either/or terms. When people dare to suggest that racism may manifest itself in more subtle ways, or that racism is more about structural discrimination than it is about individual prejudices, they risk being accused of ‘playing the race card.’”

While Sherman’s detractors were not universally Republican, nor his defenders universally Democrat, it does, anecdotally, seem to fall that way. And statistically, Democrats are way more sympathetic to the idea that much still needs to be done to decrease racial inequality (63 percent), compared to Republicans (22 percent).

Opposite Sherman, the face of the Broncos is Peyton Manning, who provides a convenient counterpoint.

“Sport sociologists have long identified ‘stacking’ as a problem in football—the idea that certain positions are stacked according to certain races. Wide receivers are ‘black’ and quarterbacks are ‘white,’” Butterworth says. “ More than this, quarterbacks/whites are understood as intelligent and good leaders, and wide receivers/blacks are understood as natural athletes and showmen. Dominant representations of Manning repeatedly feature these themes, as did the backlash against Sherman.”

So, for those who were turned off by Sherman’s post-game comments or even those who managed to disagree with his post-post-game press conference, they can turn to the Broncos and see Peyton Manning, who is an easy symbol for everything Sherman is not: ordinary, unathletic, and white.

Neither of these images is fair. Sherman is an intelligent football player and person with a degree from Stanford and a history of helping lower-income kids get into college. Manning managed to have the greatest season by a quarterback in NFL history—I’m not sure how this wouldn’t be considered “athletic”—despite a barely-functioning neck and being 37 years old. And while Manning is statistically the greatest quarterback in football history, his record in the playoffs—and therefore the case for describing him with vacant platitudes like “He’s just a winner” or “He plays the game the right way”—is mediocre.

THE SUPER BOWL IS an inherently political thing, as is any event watched by over 100 million Americans. The majority of both Republicans and Democrats consider the game one of the main events they look forward to at the beginning of the year. And, if you’re still not convinced, Bill O’Reilly will interview President Obama as a part of the lead-in to Sunday’s game.

If an event is national enough, it becomes political.

“Sport is inherently political—from questions of who gets to play, to how and where stadiums are constructed, to issues of nationalism and patriotism, and much, much more.”

“There is the patriotism starting with the massive American flags covering the field to the military fly-overs. There is a constant drum beat of patriotism at the Super Bowl,” says Dick Crepeau, a professor of sports history at the University of Central Floria, in an email. “Some highlights include wrapping the Super Dome in a Yellow Ribbon as a remembrance of the hostages in Iran [for Super Bowl XV] and Super Bowl XXV in Tampa at the opening of the first Iraq War.”

In this general sense, that there are political undertones to Sunday’s game isn’t particularly unique. Butterworth cites “Super Bowls XV (1981, in the wake of the Iran Hostage crisis), XXV (1991, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War), and XLII (2002, in the wake of 9/11)” as more politically-charged events. “The prevailing wisdom is to refer to such spectacle as ‘patriotism,’” Butterworth says, “but I think it’s far more than that.”

And yet, there’s the common refrain of “stick to sports” whenever an athlete or a sportswriter attempts to make any kind of political inference, comment, or connection.

“Sport and politics are intertwined outside the United States, as well,” says Simon Licen, a recent, Slovenian-born transplant and a professor at Washington State University, in an email. “In the communist era, teams named CSKA (literally, Central Sports Club of the Army) were affiliated to the military forces. Clubs such as Barcelona or Athletic Bilbao are cultural symbols that transcend their athletic scope. Former prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, owns AC Milan.”

This might seem way different than sports in America, but George W. Bush once owned the Texas Rangers, and while there are long-established political and cultural ties with many European sports clubs, for the most part they’re all just as worried as every American sports team is about “growing their brands” and reaching as many fans as possible. The political connotations are way more obvious in Europe, sure. If you’re supporting a team called “Central Sports Club of the Army,” it once meant something and it still means something now, but what does it mean if you root for a basketball team named after the sun? While the politics might not be so blatant in American sports, they’re still right there.

“Professional sport in the United States has long been defined as an entertainment spectacle and, perhaps most importantly, an escape from the political,” Butterworth says. “I would counter that this is mythology. Sport is inherently political—from questions of who gets to play, to how and where stadiums are constructed, to issues of nationalism and patriotism, and much, much more.”

ULTIMATELY, WE DECIDE WHAT symbols and politics  we want to see and what we’re willing to accept.

“Even these distinctions, whatever truth they might have, don’t really capture the culture of professional football,” Butterworth says. “Every team has players who would be labeled ‘thugs,’ so fans have to pick and choose which transgressions really bother them.” And just a game earlier in the playoffs, the Seahawks found themselves on the other side of the thug-versus-good-guy dynamic, with Russell Wilson, who is black, being favorably compared to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is also black but has tattoos and occasionally wears his hat askew.

Twenty-six years ago, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, winning the game and the MVP award for a team named after a Native American slur. But the in-game politics and symbols stretch even further back in time, all the way to Super Bowl III.

“The first great cultural conflict came in the Jets-Colts game of 1969,” Crepeau says, “when the major contrast between the ’50s, crew-cut, high-top shoes Johnny Unitas and Broadway Joe Namath became a perfect melodrama of the counter-culture versus middle America.”

For better or worse, the Super Bowl is America. More than twice as many people watched last year’s Super Bowl delay than watched the Oscars, the most-viewed non-football event of 2013. And in 2012, the only thing more people chose to do than watch the Giants/Patriots Super Bowl was vote. It’s impossible to remove politics from an event so big and widespread, which makes you wonder why we even try and if we really should. Creating some kind of boundary between sports and politics—or maybe more accurately, imagining that there’s no connection between the two—seems, if anything, just incorrect.

That’s not to say that if Richard Sherman intercepts Peyton Manning in overtime on Sunday and runs the ball back for a game-winning touchdown that it’s some metaphor for liberals wresting control of the racial-politics conversation from their conservative foes. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that, even on Sundays, the conversation exists—and that the guy screaming into your television is right in the middle of it.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an assistant online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Deadspin, Grantland, The Awl, New York, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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