This year’s Netroots Nation had its familiar lineup of panels, with brilliant progressive minds talking about organizing tactics and every issue under the sun. There was one panel, however, that was the first of its kind. At “How Sports Shapes Our Politics and Why It Matters,” the panel’s participants—The Nation’s Dave Zirin, Change.org’s Eden James, professor Diane Williams, and Dr. Eddie Moore—discussed how sports affect larger progressive fights for equality for women, minorities, and the LGBT community, and how professional and amateur athletes have both led and followed fights on those issues and others.
The entire panel is worth watching, even if (especially if) you aren’t a sports fan. Some progressives have seemingly lost a sense of how politics-infused our professional sports are, and about how progressive our sports can be, a point Zirin drove home early in his speech.
“The powers that be in our society have created an athletic-industrial complex that’s set up to make you think that if there are any politics in it at all, it’s politics much more comfortable with Glenn Beck than the people in this room,” Zirin said. “Militarism, patriotism, sexism, all the rest of it, and not the politics of liberation. That has somehow been completely disconnected from sports.”
Sports, indeed, have long been an agent of progressive social change. From Civil Rights to women’s liberation to labor fights and opposition to war, the progressive movement has often found a home—and leadership—in sports.
“You cannot tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement without talking about Jackie Robinson,” Zirin said. “You cannot tell the story of the 1960s without talking about Tommie Smith and John Carlos on that medal stand with their fists in the air. You cannot tell the story of women’s liberation without telling the story of Billie Jean King. It is so much a part of our history and fighting for freedom, and it’s an absolute sin that it’s not a history that we claim.”
For whatever reason, progressives have largely chosen to ignore the opportunities sports give us to talk about and examine our differences and the issues those differences create. Even worse, the left far too often dismisses legitimate issues in sports as unimportant disputes between “millionaires and billionaires.”
We can’t afford that. Progressives should talk about corporations getting rich off of college athletes (who disproportionately come from low-income minority backgrounds) who don’t share in the wealth and often don’t receive the education they are promised. We should talk about our sports leagues and college bowls not paying taxes. We should talk about teams and cities bilking taxpayers to finance sporting events and new stadiums. We should talk about the declining visibility of female athletes and the declining opportunity for female coaches. We should talk about the fact that our athletes often don’t get the health care they need, and the dire financial situations many enter after retiring. We should talk about the fact that there isn’t a single openly gay male athlete in American professional sports and that female athletes are too often told to stay in the closet.
These aren’t “sports issues.” They are progressive issues, and more importantly, they are human issues.
The good news is that sports have proven that they can be a positive agent of social change. And harnessing their potential to be that agent is crucial to the progressive movement. If we’re going to win off the field, we have to win on it too.