To start, let me say something about myself. I love sports. I was a three-sport athlete in high school and I still love playing sports now (though badly). I love watching sports, both on TV and in person. I have a son on the high school baseball team and never thought I would enjoy watching as much baseball as he plays, but I do. I have heard sports described as either soap operas or reality shows for men. It really is as Jim McKay used to say: “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The problem is that sports are meant to be fun (unless my Hokies and Razorbacks both lose as they did last week) but, with the politics of the day, they are losing some of their enjoyment as mindless entertainment. What is really starting to get hard is the hypocrisy in sports, yet, historically speaking, maybe it always has been this way.
The big news of last week was the resignation of Las Vegas Raiders Coach Jon Gruden. At first, I was not sure what I thought about an email sent eleven years ago but, as more and more inappropriate emails began to surface, it became clear that he needed to go. His emails were full of racist, homophobic, and sexist language that the NFL has condemned. It is right that the NFL condemns this type of language and the League has tried recently to stand up for what is right.
What makes it hard to accept, however, is that with its moral outrage, NFL is also allowing a Super Bowl half-time show featuring Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Dr. Dre. You may be aware of these artists, especially Snoop Dogg, who is becoming a cultural icon with his laid-back persona and commercials with Martha Stewart. However, if you are not, I would love to give you a sample of their lyrics, but I can’t because most papers would not print them. Their songs are full of racist, homophobic, and sexist language, much worse than Gruden’s. Add to that the violence and drug use these entertainers promote. I want to say sports can’t have it both ways, yet it does.
There is plenty of modern history showing the hypocrisy of sports. Most recently is Lebron James, who claims to be a champion for social justice yet attacked Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey for supporting democratic protesters in China. China was threatening to cut ties with the NBA, meaning James and the NBA could lose millions. James said of Morey, “But I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke.” It seemed what James really meant was Morey may not have been considering how much he might lose by supporting oppressed people not in America.
Then there is Nike, who also claims to support social justice and human rights. Nike used major social justice warriors like Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick in its ads but also refused to pay a real wage to workers in third-world countries, helping to keep those workers in poverty. There are championship sports teams that took their conservative players to meet Democratic presidents but refused to take their teams to either Bush’s or Trump’s White House. Then there was Monday Night Football, which dropped country legend Hank Williams Jr. for comparing President Obama to Hitler, while having no issues with artists and celebrities who made the same references to Trump.
Speaking of Hitler: When I think of one of sport’s biggest hypocrisies, he is at the center of the controversy. Most people know the story of the 1936 Olympics and American track star Jesse Owens (if you want to learn about these games from a non-track perspective, I highly recommend Boys in the Boat). Hitler planned to use these games to showcase his nation’s power and the strength of what he thought of as the “Aryan race.”
What he was not prepared for was a Black man from America showing up his track and field athletes. While Hitler’s Germans did win the most medals overall and the most gold medals, Owens walked away with four golds, more than any U.S. athlete at the time. While Owens’ dominance was the main story, the side story was his treatment by Hitler. After the first day of competition and after Hitler shook hands and congratulated the German winners, he left the stadium. The head of the Olympic Games told him that he either had to shake the hands of all the winners or none of them. He chose none of them.
Americans were furious and the story began to circulate that Owens, now a true American hero, was snubbed by the German leader. Yet when Owens was asked about the mistreatment, his answer was telling: “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler. But I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.” FDR, who had spent much of his life in the South, in true hypocrisy did not invite Owens to the White House or acknowledge his accomplishments as he did with the white athletes. Americans who were outraged at Hitler did not seem to care about FDR’s own snub.
It is sad that politics and hypocrisy take over what many Americans like me use to get away from the world for a short time each week. Though it has not always been the case, sports today are the one place where merit rises to the top. Black or White, rich or poor, the best players in the games play together. It should be the place with the least amount of divisive language. I applaud the NFL for condemning the words of Jon Gruden. But if the League is serious about ending the hypocrisy and truly wanting to unite the nation and end this type of language, the NFL needs to find a new half-time show.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.