Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies

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Thanksgiving: the relationship between sport, society and oppression. Introduction.

For Thanksgiving this year, Greg Hollin and 5 colleagues compiled a collection of posts on the theme of “Thanksgiving: the relationship between sport, society and oppression”. You can download the collection in pdf form here, but CIGS is also proud to be able to host the series as individual posts here on the blog. There are 6 posts in all, beginning with Greg’s introduction below. Enjoy!

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Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel for the national anthem.

By Greg Hollin

Today, the forth Thursday in November, millions of North Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving. Like many others around the world my thoughts and actions today are shaped by two spheres of American life. First, and as fans pour into stadiums in Dallas, Detroit, and Washington, I will be meeting with friends and watching a lot of American Football. Thanksgiving and American Football are inextricably entangled. Much like Association Football and Boxing Day (December 26th) in the UK, playing football on Thanksgiving is a tradition which extends back into the 19th century and the National Football League (NFL) has hosted games on Thanksgiving every year since the league was founded in 1920. Even as someone who supports the side that, last year, suffered ‘the worst defeat in the history of sport’ I find myself drawn back to this tradition.

Second, I will be thinking about colonialism. As Ashley Niccole McCray and Lawrence Ware say in their article for CounterPunch:

‘Let’s be honest. On the last [sic] Thursday of November, every year, we celebrate the beginning of an European invasion that ends with the death or relocation of millions of native people.’

McCray and Ware’s piece is just one of many arguing that Thanksgiving needs to be radically rethought and decolonized. An acknowledgement that Thanksgiving is bound up with colonialism and genocide is not enough; the matter needs to be front and centre for, as Howard Zinn notes in his famed book A People’s History of the United States:

‘To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves – unwittingly – to justify what is done.’ (Zinn 1980: 9)

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Under normal circumstances, colonialism and football would occupy different spaces in my mind. This year, however, things are quite different. In part, this is due to the fact that the Washington Redskins – the most brazen of all racist American team names – are playing this Thanksgiving. This coming together of sport, racism, and colonialism is also apparent, however, because of ongoing protests against police brutality made mainly, although not exclusively, by African-American athletes playing in the NFL.

As Rembert Browne writes for Bleacher Report these protests over police brutality came to international attention in August 2016 when it was noticed that then San Francisco 49ers (and now unemployed) quarterback Colin Kaepernick was sitting through the national anthem. (Kaepernick subsequently starting kneeling following conversations with ex-NFL player and military veteran Nate Boyer who suggested that kneeling was more respectful than sitting in a military context.) Over a year later, Kaepernick’s protest continues to generate front page news, not least because of numerous and notable provocations and incidents. First, Donald Trump’s repeated pronouncements on the protests. Second, star Seattle player Michael Bennett’s apparent arrest and mistreatment by the Las Vegas Police Department. Third, mind blowingly offensive statements from NFL owners. And forth, Kaepernick’s ongoing lawsuit which claims that owners of NFL teams have colluded to keep him out of the league. All this, of course, has occurred against ongoing acts of violence which were the cause of protests in the first place. For the first time in a long time, those of us who watch the NFL are being forced to consider matters of race at the exact same moment that we are watching the sport.

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The links in the text above provide a good summary of the particularities of the Kaepernick case. The purpose of this blog, however, is to ask a slightly broader question into which the current case clearly fits: what is the relationship between oppression and sport? It seems to me that there are three answers generally proffered in relation to this question.

The first is to suggest that we need to keep politics out of sport. Like church and state, politics and sport need to be kept apart for the good of us all. Recent polls (discussed in the above link) suggest that the majority of Americans feel this way. The problem, of course, is that this is impossible. As the recent Oscar winning documentary OJ: Made in America made clear, politics and sport are absolutely intertwined. How could it be otherwise when there is an Alternative Soccer World Cup for peoples whose nations are not recognised by Soccer’s world governing body, FIFA?

The second option is to consider sport as a mirror of society or broader social patterns. Perhaps the fact that female tennis players and academics are paid less than their male peers should be understood as part of the same patriarchal culture? Examples of this argument are widespread and well-founded. In his biography of Muhammed Ali, for example, David Remnick argues that ‘Ali may not have read W.E.B. Du Bois, but he was a living example of the “two-ness,” the “double-consciousness,” described in The Souls of Black Folk’ (Remnick 1999: 278). The implication here is that Ali, his views, and his treatment can be understood with reference to pre-existing social theories which are not concerned with the particularities of sport.

The third (and final?) option is that sport somehow shapes or modifies oppressions and plays a constitutive role in society. Sport here does not reflect society but, as Jelani Cobb puts it, ‘refracts’ (that is, modifies) national anxieties. This view is well articulated by the historian, journalist, and socialist CLR James. In Beyond a Boundary, often claimed to be the greatest sports book ever written, James discusses liberal and socialist histories of Victorian England. James is aghast that these histories do not include mention of W.G. Grace, one of cricket’s most enduring icons and important players:

‘I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace… Between those who, writing about social life in Britain, can leave him out, and myself, there yawns a gulf deep and wide.’ (James 1963/2005: 208)

For James, understanding society necessitates an understanding of sport – not as an epiphenomenon but as a constitutive element.

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For me, understanding the relationship between sport, society, and oppression is a fascinating and important area of sociological inquiry; albeit an area I am not qualified to contribute to. Fortunately, here at Leeds there are a number of scholars whose work entails a detailed understanding of the relationship between sport and society. This Thanksgiving, at a time when colonialism and sport are to the front of so many minds, I asked scholars in our school a question which speaks to this matter:

“How should we understand the role of sport within society, with particular reference to various oppressions?”

In answering this question there is first is a contribution by Sonja Erikainen. Sonja (@SonjaErikainen on twitter) is a research fellow at The University of Edinburgh but, until recently, was a research student in the school. Sonja’s PhD involved a genealogy of the female category in Olympic sport. The current piece engages extensively with Colin Kaepernick and the ‘take a knee’ movement.

Second, work from Hizer Mir. Hizer (@hizzy20) is a PhD researcher in the school. Hizer’s work concerns matters of Islam, secularization, and understandings of the public sphere and last year Hizer discussed some of these issues in relation to ‘Steph Curry’s game winning shot’ making his work particularly applicable to the current context.

Third, Kay Phoenix Nacto. Phoenix is a PhD student in the school whose work engages with feminism, race, and popular culture. In this piece, Pheonix addresses another facet of the debate surrounding race and the NFL: the decision to invite Justin Timberlake to the superbowl in 2017 while ignoring Janet Jackson.

Fourth, a piece from Karen Throsby. Karen (@thelongswim) is Associate Professor within the school and has written extensively on gender and long distance swimming. It is from within this sporting arena that Karen situates her piece here.

Finally, the thoughts of Rodanthi Tzanelli, Associate Professor of Cultural Psychology. Rodanthi (@RodanthiPu) has written extensively on media, tourism, and globalization and this includes work examining recent Olympic ceremonies. The current piece, which Rodanthi has entitled ‘football mobilities’ examines oppression with a global focus very much in mind.

The answers below, ordered alphabetically, are thoughtful and diverse and I hope they make us all think about this matter a little more closely.

References 

James, C., 2005. Beyond a Boundary, London: Yellow Jersey Press.

Remnick, D., 1999. King of the World: Muhammed Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, New York: Picador.

Zinn, H., 1980. A People’s History of the United States, New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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