The Progression Of Sports And Politics Since Kaepernick’s Kneel

American football player kneeling on the field
Edelline Sutanto

In hindsight, it seems to be a logical division: sport is entertainment and politics is politics. Sports have been used as a getaway from the reality politics brings, yet a rapid growth in political awareness within the past few years have slowly peeled away at this boundary. Edelline Sutanto explores the progression of the way in which politics has begun to pervade the world of sports, most recognisably in recent years. 

Historically, there have always been notable incidences where politics would clash with sports, yet these occurrences – normally one-off – often coincided with global issues that would later be resolved or forgotten. To this day, governments will still use sports for political gain, yet there has not been an outstanding, continuous record of fans and athletes alike taking similar advantage of sporting tournaments, until Colin Kaepernick made headlines for a simple gesture.

The Political Evolution of Kaepernick’s Kneel

For many youths today, a kneel was the first introduction to this ever-evolving political discussion. Kaepernick’s gesture from the 2016 NFL preseason game was met with heavy backlash when it first made headlines.

Footage from the event captured crowds booing in response to the kneel; both prominent political figures and members of the general public had agreed that Kaepernick’s gesture was disrespectful to the American flag and the veterans present. In the face of such accusations, Kaepernick’s intention to advocate against police brutality in America was forgotten. There was no clearer sentiment against the use of sports for politics as this incident displays.

people have come to acknowledge Kaepernick’s original intention behind the kneel

In a few years, public opinion regarding the subject had drastically shifted, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside its implications. A kneel had become a prominent symbol for the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd as a result of police brutality. The renowned NFL athlete came to be recognised as a human rights activist rather than an athlete with no respect for their country or its veterans.

Proceeding the wave of BLM protests, more countries were inspired to use this gesture to protest against racism and police brutality. EURO 2020 saw many athletes on the field kneeling before matches. Again, the gesture was met with similar backlash, yet the number of athletes that chose to kneel has shown how more people have come to acknowledge Kaepernick’s original intention behind the kneel.

2022 Qatar World Cup

Rather than continuing to enquire whether sports and politics should mix, this phenomenon had seemingly occurred with no one answer to the lingering question. Fans and athletes alike observed the potential that such events have for voicing their political concerns.

More recently, the 2022 FIFA World Cup had shown this capability and degree of global activism. Before the event had even begun, there had been conflict regarding Qatar hosting the World Cup that year, due to numerous ethical concerns, including human rights abuses stemming from reports regarding how the event was set up.

the Qatari government were against promoting certain political movements or ideologies

Despite protests, the World Cup still went ahead as planned. Avid fans instead took the opportunity to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict using other forms of protests, such as raising the Palestinian flag when given the chance or ignoring Israeli reporters when approached. Iran also had its fair share of activism present during the tournament when fans also brought along the country’s flag and the Iranian team chose not to sing their national anthem in support of ongoing anti-government protests.

It was clear that the 2022 World Cup had set the stage for politics to interchange with sports. The main question had now become whether this change should be accepted.

Reports regarding efforts to quell activism during the 2022 World Cup has shown that the Qatari government were against promoting certain political movements or ideologies during the event. Witnesses observed security ushering out fans who carried banners or shirts in support of Iran or LGBTQ rights, but not for Palestine, likely due to Qatar’s own political alignments. FIFA itself had never budged, despite demands to remove Qatar’s hosting privileges.

2023 Indonesia U-20 World Cup

This response was solidified by FIFA retracting Indonesia’s privilege to host the U-20 World Cup, shortly following protests against Israeli participation in the upcoming tournament, stating “current circumstances” as a justification for the decision. FIFA had also mentionned the Kanjuruhan Stadium disaster in October 2022, which had resulted in the death of more than 130 people present.

Regardless of FIFA’s intentions in retracting Indonesia’s hosting duty, the sentiment was clear: politics could not influence sports. Such a sentiment has been echoed by other major sport leagues like the International Olympic Committee which has historically allowed events to run as scheduled despite politically driven protests from other countries.

It is unlikely that any major league would successfully divide sports and politics completely

The 2022 Winter Olympics had displayed this mostly apolitical stance through remaining impartial towards protests against the treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, resulting in several countries boycotting the major event. Although there are other major leagues that allow for activism in events, these efforts often go unnoticed in favour of news regarding scandals in larger-scaled tournaments.

In spite of whether sport leagues, news anchors or other authorities think sports and politics should mix, some fans and athletes will continue to take advantage of such events to conduct activism for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that any major league would successfully divide sports and politics completely, especially considering how much more pertinent politics has become in many people’s day-to-day lives.

In fact, some leagues have chosen to uptake a more morally-concentrated approach in their management, which has been accompanied with inevitable backlash from fans that oppose this perspective. Ultimately, there is no telling whether mixing sports and politics would progress well in the future. Hence, it is up to fans, athletes and other relevant parties to decide on what lies ahead for the future of sports and politics.

Edelline Sutanto

Featured image courtesy of Wendy Wei on Pexels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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