Courting the Sport Vote – or not

Where does sport fit into the current Canadian election campaign? I throw that out there having heard much about climate change, niqabs, debt, and refugees, but nothing about sport (and little about healthcare) – there have been a few references to arts funding, but sport seems to be left out of this election entirely. So I’ll stand up a say why we should at least articulate something about it and leave it up to the parties to figure out what they believe would fit with their platforms.

To begin with I shouldn’t say that sport is completely absent from the politics of this country. The current Conservative government has made it clear that they will not contribute any funds to sports construction around the country – there have been many opportunities over the past few years – Toronto, Regina, and Quebec City have looked to the federal government for money for stadiums or arenas without success (and I’m inclined to agree that we shouldn’t be throwing massive amounts of money at huge corporations or the millionaires that hold cities for ransom with pro sports teams). The Conservatives have also brought in that tax credit for registering your kid in sports. This sounds great, hockey is not cheap, but of course this is one of those benefits where you have to spend money to get money – it disproportionately favours those that already have the means to pay for their kids sports and does nothing to improve the lot of those families that have limited means yet also want to have active kids. It also turns out that many of our great athletes that have left the country to ply their trade professionally elsewhere may have lost their right to vote, most famously Wayne Gretzky cannot vote yet endorsed Stephen Harper and the party that disenfranchised the Great One. So sport is there, but not in any way key to the debates. Sport is so absent that one of the main reasons that Mayor John Tory did not bid for the 2024 Olympics after the success of the PanAm Games was that he could not secure federal promises of support during the current campaign (so maybe we dodged one there with our extra long election campaign).

But what is new with sport? In this season of outlandish and unrealistic promises, why is there no platform for sport? Hey, promise that you’ll bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada and you’re sure to bring in a few votes, right? Go to a baseball game and show that you’ve jumped on the Blue Jays bandwagon with thousand of other voters. Actually, don’t.

Looking through the main parties platforms, only the NDP have thrown sport anything – a $28 million promise to fund sport for disadvantaged youth. Nothing from the Conservatives, Liberals, Greens, or Bloc. But sport matters. Even going back to a 2005 Conference Board of Canada report “Strengthening Canada: The Socio-Economic Benefits of Sport Participation in Canada” highlights the benefits of encouraging the entire population to be actively involved in sport. This is not just the health benefits associated with active lifestyles, but the authors also cite benefits to social cohesion, skills and the economy – buzzwords that all politicians love!

C’mon federal party leaders, hop in there and do something crazy that can snatch a headline for a day: promise a proper Challenge Cup for hockey (like the original Stanley Cup), get the CFL to work on that soccer league that is supposedly in the works, fund an infrastructure program that includes public pools, create cycling networks in major urban centres, expand and more fully fund the National Park system, there is an endless list of ways that sport can be worked into great policy for Canada, all it takes is some vision.

Work or Play?

FIFA 16 coversTomorrow is one of the most important soccer days in the year, not for any game in the calendar, but for the release of EA Sports FIFA16 video game. While it is just a virtual game, the importance of it to many kids (and yes, adults too) is in its ability to draw fans deeper into the real game. Many discussions between the boys at my son’s soccer practices have revolved around getting the game, who they want to play as, and which version or console they have. These boys already have a strong interest in the sport, but through playing the game it creates an attachment to teams and players that they may not have developed otherwise (why does a Canadian 10 year old regularly check on the results of Exeter City [English League 2] for any other reason than he spent most of a virtual season as their leading scorer?).

Each annual iteration of the game consists of some minor tweaks to game play and controls, but the most important change (and the reason people keep buying it) is the updates of team rosters to stay current with the latest changes in the transfer market and inclusion (and subtraction) of the stars of the game. For the first time the game will include a group of playable women’s teams – not the club teams, but the national teams of many of the participants in last summer’s Women’s World Cup. When EA first announced the women’s teams that were to be included in the game, one entry – Canada – stood out; Canada would be the only country in the game where the women’s national team would be playable, but the men’s national team would not. Sigh. Granted our women are consistently ranked around 10th in the world, while our men have spent most of the last few years ranked around 100th. So somewhat belatedly, EA Sports – based in Vancouver and therefore largely a Canadian game – announced that the Canadian men’s team would be playable in FIFA16. This is great for men’s and women’s soccer in Canada, being able to win the World Cup as Canada in this game (yeah I know there are already jokes about  how you’d probably have to turn the difficulty way down) gives the future players of this country a chance to dream, but it also gives them a chance to learn who currently plays for Canada. While Christine Sinclair is already familiar to many Canadians, now kids can follow the development of Cyle Larin, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, Tesho Akindele, and Jessie Fleming. If there is one thing the national teams need, it is to become that team that you want to be a part of as a fan or as a player. The women have that – just consider how they were treated throughout the WWC that Canada hosted this year, but the men have still struggled to find a strong following. The men’s team has the acute problem right now of not just needing to fill the stadium during its current World Cup qualification cycle, but needs to do so without its games having any current broadcasting deal. Despite the ratings that the women’s team brought in over the summer, the CSA and Sportsnet terminated their broadcasting deal just before Canada began its road to (hopefully?) the 2018 World Cup. FIFA16 with its ability to play as Canada helps can help to build that supporters base not just this year, but far into the future.

But not all has worked according to plan since the announcement that the Canadian Women’s team would be included in FIFA16. Last week EA was forced to announce that 13 players that were to be included were being dropped from the rosters of their national teams because they are currently players in the NCAA and their inclusion in the video game would affect their scholarships and eligibility to play on their US college teams. This affected 1 Spaniard, 6 Mexicans, and 6 Canadians – including Lawrence, Fleming, and Buchanan. Now EA made it clear that the players involved were not being paid in any way for their participation in the game (and with the thousands of men’s players the game includes there is no way they could compensate players and still make a game), yet the NCAA has held firm and insisted these women not be included in the game. What makes this so odd is that the women listed were not going to be included in the game as NCAA players – those teams aren’t part of the game anyway – the women were solely being listed as part of their national teams.

Don’t think for a moment that this is in any way about protecting the amateur eligibility of 13 women, this is entirely about the several thousand men that participate in NCAA college football and basketball. Or more precisely, protecting the NCAA and its billion dollar sports industry from having to compensate the thousands of football players and basketball players in their system. College sports is extremely lucrative, look at the success of March Madness or the BCS for how much college sports brings in through TV and advertising revenue. Yet its players receive no pay for their play. Well, okay they get scholarships and a college education for their efforts, but the NCAA as it currently functions, brings in billions in revenue for rather minuscule labour costs. It is such a successful system because for both football and basketball it is largely the only route to a professional career in the sport later on. Student-athletes (as the NCAA calls them) are trapped working on their athletic skills (and yes academic skills, but there is also a lot of controversy about that) for very little actual pay, in careers that already have limited timespans, in the hopes of becoming a pro after school. Yet players are not considered employees or workers by the NCAA. In

At least the US values its post-secondary education system (?)

At least the US values its post-secondary education system (?)

fact the players of Northwestern University recently lost a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision where they attempted to claim they were workers and therefore entitled to unionize. Now belonging to a union isn’t simply about pay, it is about many other protections from abuses of employers, and the ability to work as a group of employees to make working conditions better, but consider the discrepancy between how the players and the coach of these amateur players is compensated. Players receive a generous scholarship – as long as they are athletes at the school, but this is not actual pay. Pat Fitzgerald, NWU football coach, receives a $2.48 million pay package and only ranks 39th on the list of highest paid football coaches in the NCAA. Look across the NCAA and you will find that the highest paid state employees in most of the US are football and basketball coaches – yet players are not entitled to a fraction of the revenues that they generate for their schools. That is what drives the need to prevent 13 women from being able to virtually participate for their national teams in a video game – the need to prevent football and basketball players from similar participation – or compensation.

The need to protect the NCAA from its players has affected the possibilities for another Canadian as well. Sprinter Andre De Grasse won two bronze medals at the recent IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Beijing, yet was forced to forfeit his prize earnings from the meet as it would have prevented him from keeping his eligibility status in NCAA. Again, this has little to do with De Grasse receiving his rewards as one of the world’s fastest men, and everything to do with the idea that one of the more lucrative sports might find a way to pay their athletes. And this isn’t about some ideal of amateurism in sport – fans don’t care one way or the other if athletes are paid for their efforts, consider the eyes fixed on any major sporting event such as the Super Bowl, Olympics, Champions League, World Cup, etc. – amateur or pro, people watch.

It is a shame that one big step for the representation of Canadians and of women in a video game has been derailed by the greed of an organization “protecting” their amateur athletes.

Sports, Jingoism, and Refugees

I came across an article about Islamophobia and sport from Al Jazeera the other day, and while much of what is said in there rings true of how sport leagues and specifically in an American context (yes that includes Canada) promote a certain militarized patriotic ideal, the world of sport is more complex than Khaled Beydoun presents.

Supporting troops or selling war?

Supporting troops or selling war?

Yes there are problems with how sport is used: the close links between the military and teams – as much as I support the individuals who do put on military uniforms and serve, I am very uncomfortable with the constant tributes to serving Forces members at games and cannot stand the use of camoflage versions of team uniforms. It becomes too much and yet not enough, because I’m curious what sort of support the owners would give to individual soldiers outside of their using these troops as marketing opportunity. Taken too far it becomes a pantomime that you see in WWE. I remember the WWF (as it was at the time) vilifying the Iron Sheik – perpetual badguy in the staged wrestling and his transformation into Col. Mustafa during Operation Desert Storm. His defeat by Hacksaw Jim Duggan devolved into a orgy of American jingoism on the eve of war. Good theatre, but ugly sport and racism.

Question why we sing the national anthem prior to a game for a moment. I will be going to a Canada vs Belize 2018 World Cup Qualifying match tonight and will sing the anthem of the team I am supporting tonight. The national team represents the country and so I’ll grant it here. But when it comes to a Toronto FC game, or any other city based team in a professional sporting league for that matter, why am I singing the national anthem? Toronto FC does not represent Canada, it is one of three Canadian-based MLS teams, the rosters of which contain a smattering of Canadians. I won’t even argue the Blue Jays or Raptors represent Canada as the sole Canadian teams in their respective leagues (West Coast upbringing, so I’m a Mariners fan). Why should I sing the national anthem for a game between Montreal and Toronto, both of whom are based in Canada and can claim the anthem? At that point they don’t represent the country, they represent the city. Listen to the beginning of the next Premier League game you watch, there is no God Save the Queen – not even a Rule Britannia – instead the only anthem you’ll hear is the team’s anthem (if they have one).

Beydoun is right where he speaks about how sport is politicized by leagues (North American context again), and yet at the same time we are constantly reminded that sport is not the place for politics. Hence the NFL allowing the Washington franchise to continue to use a racist epithet for its mascot, yet sanctioning players who demonstrated solidarity with #blacklivesmatter. We are told that sport is an escape, and leave the politics out, but politics cannot stay out when sport is held up as a symbol of our culture and society. North Americans view sport as passive entertainment and nothing bigger than what it is, yet for all the fans’ and media talk of the “12th man” “home field/court advantage” we have not yet acknowledged that sport creates affect that extends beyond the stadium/arena. We watch sport to feel a part of something, for a sense of belonging; now that we belong what are we going to do with it?

bvb refugeesCompare that to football/soccer in a just about anywhere else in the world context. Sport means something – intensely. “Mes que un club” (More than a team) as FC Barcelona says. Groups form and bring politics to the sport and sport to politics because you cannot separate the two. I will admit this is not always a positive thing, you will get groups that promote racism and hatred, but they exist regardless of whether sport is involved or not. So while its easy for Beydoun to point at the monkey chants that black players face in places, I wish he had seen the other side of football supporters that is there. As the Syrian refugee crisis has worsened and thousands have made their way to Europe, only to be harassed, marked with numbers and literally walled out of different countries by governments, yet supporters at games around Europe have show solidarity with the refugees. It has even reached into the league organizations as the German Football Association (DFB) have begun a “Cross out Prejudices” campaign focused on the inclusion of refugees, and the dominant club in Germany – Bayern Munich has announced they will hold a training camp for refugees while donating 1m euros to refugee initiatives. Does this absolve sport of its wrongs? No of course not, but there is far more nuance to sport than Beydoun grants it.

I’m Still Here…and Why I’ve Been Away

Finally I feel I can resurrect this blog and keep it going again for a while. A quick explanation of why I’ve been away – most of my writing energies over the past year have been devoted elsewhere.

First, my Master’s thesis, and a related conference paper. So in October 2014 I defended the thesis titled: Global Game, Local Identities: The Social Production of Football Space in Liverpool. In it I make an argument that the city of Liverpool has come to depend on football as a means to build its economy around, and that the tourism that football generates creates different reactions in the local supporters of the game. I was very interested in the supporters trusts that I found in England and what they are looking to do with their involvement with teams, and that interest has spurred me on to continue my studies.

So the last year has been the first year of my PhD (still at York University and still in Geography). It has been a rush of courses (along with the defense), a student strike (during the frigid Toronto winter), and buying a new house (not recommended during a 1st year of a PhD – just in case you ever consider it). Now that I move into second year I am thinking that while the course burden is less, I’ll need to write something as I begin to study for my comprehensive exam sometime this winter.

The purpose of this blog may shift a bit as part of this, while before it was largely focused on the culture of football, and so is my PhD, I’d like to use this as both tool to work through the stack of papers and books for my exam, and also to place the culture of football within a wider context of sport in general. This will require some reorganization, so in the coming days/weeks I’ll be splitting the two interests into different pages here. I am very aware of how much this blog helped in my MA writing just as a place to process thoughts, but when faced with producing a thesis, it became difficult to justify the time spent writing a blog when I had something else to write.