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.
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?
Compare 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.