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You Can’t Keep Politics Out Of Sports, So Stop Trying

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Attempts to keep sports fandom “politics-free” are not just impossible: they’re dismissive of a very large segment of the fanbase.

2017 Scotiabank NHL 100 Classic - Montreal Canadiens v Ottawa Senators Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

Another year has passed, and here we are talking once again about the NHL and its failure to make itself more accessible to minorities.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a piece for this website titled “Hockey Is(n’t) For Everyone,” in which I criticized the NHL for throwing a half-assed “Hockey Is For Everyone” month while doing almost nothing to actually make hockey more inclusive. In the time since that article, the league has unsurprisingly continued to repeat the same patterns. It has been wrapped up in controversies ranging from offensive Tweets to White House visits to Halloween costumes to more slurs being said on the ice to a bunch of other things I’m surely forgetting about because they happen just about every week.

Most recently, the NHL announced that Kid Rock would be performing at the All-Star game. I am not going to go into detail about the many things that make Kid Rock a tone-deaf and downright offensive choice for the All-Star game, but let’s just say that he is against “Hockey Is For Everyone,” doesn’t believe transgender people exist, has publicly supported Donald Trump, and uses the confederate flag in his performances (and yes, as someone of Southern heritage, I do understand the complexity of confederate symbolism. It’s still offensive. Please don’t try to explain that to me in the comments).

But like I said, I am not here to convince you that Kid Rock is a bad person. Many people have already done a much better job of that than I could. What I am here to talk about is a particular sentiment that gets expressed all throughout sports fandom every time one of these such controversies crops up - one that I’ve seen thrown around a lot since this particular announcement. It’s something that I’m guessing a few of you are about to angrily type into the comments section on this post.

“Why can’t we just keep politics out of sports?” you’re about to say, “I like you so much better when you’re writing recaps and expressing opinions about the Sens roster, not challenging my worldview and making me think about real issues!”

First of all, I’m sorry to tell you this, but sports are and always have been very political. Visiting the White House is just as much of a political statement as boycotting it. Standing for the anthem is a political statement. Inviting a member of the military to every game is political. Not doing anything to make the game more accessible to minorities is political. The very idea of using spectator sports as an escape is political in its roots, as in ancient times sport was used by leaders to distract the masses and gain public approval. A quick google search will show you plenty of instances throughout history in which sporting events have been linked to politics, unsurprisingly given their heavily nationalistic ties. I’m sorry, my friend, but you’re just going to have to put up with politics in your sports.

But still, I get it. You don’t want to think about social justice when you’re enjoying something that should serve as an escape. You want sports to be a place where you can drink beer and get emotional about athletes whose successes and failures have no real bearing on your life, and forget about all the horrible stuff that’s going on in the world.

Well, guess what? So do I. And so do all the people you’re attacking for bringing up these issues.

I can guarantee you that in my entire life, I have never heard someone say “escapism is great and all, but the real reason I watch sports is so that I can discuss politics and current events with like-minded people.” The only thing that women, BIPOC* and LGBTQIA+** fans want out of sports fandom is the chance to enjoy it the same way everyone else does. We want to sit beside you, screaming at athletes we don’t know and chirping fans of opposing teams and striking up conversations with strangers because we have one thing in common and that’s our love for the game. The problem is that that is not an option for us.

Instead, we get catcalled by strangers.

We get patronized and talked down to.

We hear slurs directed at us.

We see our favourite teams openly reject social movements that concern our basic human rights.

We see leagues turn a blind eye when their athletes are accused - sometimes even convicted - of violence and harassment against people like us.

We are made to feel unsafe and unwelcome in an environment that pretends to be inclusive.

Day in and day out, we are reminded that the teams and the leagues we love do not care about us. The reason we continue to talk about social justice in sports fandom is because it is our only hope of making space for ourselves.

Yes, I’m forcing you to think about these things. I have to think about them every day, and so do so many other people, and if you don’t, then there’s a good chance you are (whether consciously or unconsciously) part of the reason why.

The sports world is years behind the rest of the developed world in dealing with misogyny, racism and homophobia. It is the only environment I frequent in which I, an able-bodied, straight, white, cisgender woman, feel like a minority and not like a person who has been given a massive advantage in society. When you say that you do not want to think about “politics” when watching sports, you are essentially saying that you want sports to remain an environment that is exclusively for straight, white, cisgender men. You are saying that you cannot be bothered to make the minuscule amount of effort required to make other people feel more comfortable in that environment. And yes, we know that most of you don’t exclude us on purpose. That’s why we’re trying to tell you what you’re doing wrong and what you should be doing instead.

We are not asking for much. We are asking that you not make jokes that devalue an entire group of people, and not laugh when your friends make them. That you take us seriously when we talk about sports and not laugh or talk over us. And most importantly, that you listen to our concerns and change your own behaviour accordingly. And yes, we are asking for leagues like the NHL to condemn athletes who out themselves as rapists or domestic abusers, to stop using bigots in their marketing campaigns, and to make more of an effort to help people feel welcome in sports fandom.

The truth of the matter is that until every member of the sports world who is complicit in making other people feel unwelcome starts actively working to include those people, sports will never be an environment in which fans can forget about social inequalities.

I would love to enjoy my sports politics-free. But I can’t. If you can, maybe think about why that is, and what you can do to make sure other people can enjoy that same privilege.

*BIPOC is an acronym for “Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.”

** LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for all sexual and gender identities.