How identity politics affected the NFL, NASCAR and other sports this year


For a while, 2020 looked like a year in which there wouldn’t be sports because of COVID-19. But for the most part, the games went on, as did the cultural struggles that have become omnipresent on and off the field, track and arena.

This year saw the NFL and NASCAR take stands on divisive issues: kneeling during the national anthem and flying the Confederate flag. It gave us a short-lived NBA strike, and the first woman to score points in a Power 5 college football game. It included a debate over whether athletes are essential workers. And 2020 introduced a surprising new face in the culture war: the cardboard cut-out fan.

Although the politicalization of sports may feel new, it’s a long-standing phenomenon that tends to run in cycles, said Jeffrey Montez de Oca, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and director of the school’s Center for Critical Sport Studies.

We’re in such a cycle now, a period of intense political tribalism that began with Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem in 2016, Montez de Oca said.

“We can expect that this period will die down at some point in the future,” he said, but it’s unclear if this will occur in the coming year.

Members of the Denver Broncos take a knee during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski, Associated Press

There’s been a general shift to the left in public opinion on many social issues in sports, he noted. Kaepernick’s stance against racial injustice, for example, didn’t seem as controversial in the light of George Floyd’s death and other reported instances of police brutality and racial injustice this year. In 2016, 28% of Americans said Kaepernick’s form of protest was appropriate; that number rose to 52% this year.

But conservatives don’t appear ready to yield the field, and Kaepernick has still not found work as a quarterback, four years after his last NFL snap. Here’s a look at how his story played out in 2020, and four other cultural skirmishes that took place in the sports world this year.

A woman on the field

The Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that in the current polarized climate, Americans are finding their identity more in politics than any other area. “There are very few places where politics has not swallowed up every aspect of the conversation,” said Moore, the author of “Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel,” among other books.

That’s why, when the Vanderbilt University football team turned to a female star soccer player to help bolster its COVID-19-ravaged roster, the conversation quickly turned political. Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score in an NCAA Power 5 football game, but some people saw her presence on the field as a publicity stunt, heralded by people who want gender equality to extend to a bruising sport dominated by super-sized men.

“I don’t believe she played football. She scored a point in the culture war,” Jason Whitlock wrote on the sports website Outkick, arguing that Fuller is an excellent soccer player, but “a terrible football player, arguably the worst to ever take the field in the SEC.”

And conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro, while calling Fuller an “amazing athlete” on the soccer field, questioned why Fuller was being championed for what he considered a mediocre kick in a game Vanderbilt lost. “That’s nice, OK. I’m not sure why that is a major achievement for women. It seems like major achievements for women would be a major achievement for a man, but a woman did it.”

The SEC named Fuller the special-teams player of the week.

Are athletes essential?

Count President Donald Trump among the people who wanted sports to continue during the pandemic. Beginning in April, he began advocating for games to resume and in August, tweeted support for the return of college football, using the hashtag #wewanttoplay in solidarity with players.

But Trump did not, as some people thought, declare athletes essential workers. (He did, however, sign an order allowing some professional athletes from other countries to enter the U.S. during the pandemic.)

Some other states, however, did designate athletes as essential workers, most notably Florida, which allowed professional wrestling to resume in April, when the state had a stay-at-home order in effect. World Wrestling Entertainment subsequently has had to temporarily halt production because of positive COVID-19 tests.

Like others advocating for sports to continue, WWE executives argued that Americans needed entertainment, especially while they were self-isolating. “We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times,” WWE said in a statement.

Others have argued, however, that it’s not acceptable to ask athletes to take the risk. In one poll, 58% said people should not be playing indoor sports during the pandemic, NPR reported.

A flag and a strike

NASCAR began pushing back on the Confederate flag that is often on cars, trucks and T-shirts at its races after Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist, killed nine people at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

Then, NASCAR urged fans to leave their flags at home, and even offered a trade-in program, offering American flags in exchange for any other type of flag turned in. But it wasn’t until 2020 that the governing body for stock car racing officially banned the flag from its facilities, two weeks after driver Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, urged NASCAR to do so.

Wallace made his request in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died after a white policeman knelt on his neck for more than 8 minutes in May. Anger over Floyd’s death and others heightened sensitivity about racial injustice across the nation, and led to an NBA strike that resulted in new league commitments to social justice, including the establishment of a social justice coalition.

Trump criticized the strike saying of the NBA, “They’ve become like a political organization, and that’s not a good thing.”

And some NASCAR fans are pushing back at the restrictions, with one literally flying a Confederate flag over a racetrack in June.

Rob Carr, Associated Press

Paper fans

After the World Health Organization pronounced the novel coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, it didn’t take long for opposing strategies to emerge along party lines. Many conservatives, including the president, said the threat of the virus was overblown, and argued that the economic damage of shutdowns would do more damage to the U.S. over the long run than the virus itself. Liberals were more likely to advocate for the widespread closures to contain the virus, while providing financial aid to American families and businesses.

This divide was evident in reaction to cardboard cut-out fans that populated stadiums and arenas this fall instead of fans. Many conservatives pronounced the restrictions at outdoor venues ridiculous, made worse by the piped-in fake crowd noise and cardboard fans.

One meme making the rounds on Twitter said, “Big as these stadiums are, they could have allowed some fans to attend. If it’s it’s that bad, they should have canceled the season.” Another Twitter user said that with stadiums holding 100,000 people, letting 20,000 fans attend would be no more risky than a trip to Costco.

The future for Kaepernick

As for Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started the current cycle of political foment, he has been quiet this year, save for a much-hyped workout for potential new teams that ultimately did nothing for his professional football career.

He rarely gives interviews (and did not respond to a Deseret News request), but remains in the news, from a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream named after him (it’s called “Change the Whirled”) to rumors about potential NFL deals. He established a COVID-19 relief fund to which he donated $100,000 and before the pandemic set in, announced the formation of a publishing company.

But even ice cream with Kaepernick branding is political. Fox News reported that one of the athlete’s goals is to diminish police presence in the U.S.

“My hope is that this partnership will amplify calls to defund and abolish the police and to invest in futures that can make us safer, healthier, and truly free,” Kaepernick said in announcing the venture.


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