Of all the reasons for resigning from Donald Trump’s “American Manufacturing Council” in the wake of the president’s reaction to the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, the one offered on Tuesday by Under Armour chief executive Kevin Plank felt the most wilfully naive. According to the boss of the sportswear firm, he was stepping down because “Under Armour engages in innovation and sports, not politics”.
Oh dear. I’m not quite sure what Plank imagined he was getting Under Armour into when he took his seat on Trump’s American Manufacturing Council, but I can’t believe he really is so dim that he thought it was just an American manufacturing council. Furthermore, I can’t believe he doesn’t realise that big-time sport and politics are indivisible. Never mind most of the last century – has he been watching the last few years on tape delay?
Sometimes the way sport and politics intertwine is glaringly obvious – sporting boycotts, state sponsored doping, countries buying World Cups or Olympic Games to launder their reputations or to act as a showpiece for the next stage in their plan for global domination.
Sometimes it’s a question of the way a sport’s rulers choose to run it. Football clubs being fined more for kit infringements than racist chanting, banning women from playing – all these things are political. Sometimes it’s more insidious – NFL fans are so used to the excessive militarisation of games that for many it doesn’t seem bizarre or jarring, no matter how many military salutes, Chinook flypasts, or flashy Pentagon-funded army recruitment drives are deemed a necessary backdrop to a football game. Sometimes it’s who has decided to use sport for their own ends. In February, white supremacist/punched Nazi Richard Spencer marked the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory by tweeting approvingly (if inaccurately) that the Patriots were “the NFL’s whitest team”.
Other times a political struggle is embodied by an individual or individuals, and these are usually the only times it gets stamped down on. Corporate or nationalist politics in sport happen largely with impunity; individual politics incurs huge personal risk. Olympics organisers would have far rather lambasted an athlete for making a gay rights protest on the podium at the Sochi Games than they would have had a gentle word with Vladimir Putin for using the entire event as a curtain raiser for invading the Crimea. There’s politics and politics. You pick your battles.
Under Armour’s Kevin Plank has picked his battles, and made a commercial decision. The highest profile athlete to wear Under Armour is NBA legend Steph Curry, who (along with The Rock) had already voiced serious disquiet when Plank pledged allegiance to Trump earlier this year, and after Charlottesville might reasonably have been expected to walk from Under Armour if its chief executive didn’t walk from the American Manufacturing Council. (Plank’s belated decision to end involvement with a toxic White House has now drawn threats of a boycott by Trump supporters.)
Even so, there are far nobler stands being taken out there. Last year, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began a protest, opting to kneel during the national anthem to highlight police violence against minorities. He is now unemployed, and has spent much of the year being written off by irate pundits, politicians and even players as “unemployable”. Last weekend, with Charlottesville still unfolding, two other NFL players followed suit. Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett sat, and says he plans to all season; Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch sat without explanation.
Athletes across the board took to social media to condemn what happened in Charlottesville and the official reaction to it – the question now is whether they will show further political solidarity with those taking the highest profile stands. The sportswriter Dave Zirin noted that two white athletes with connections to Charlottesville – Philadelphia defensive end Chris Long and Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle – had come out and condemned the Nazi march, and the reaction to it. Zirin hoped this marked a watershed moment, where white athletes would feel compelled to show solidarity with the protests of black athletes. Michael Bennett had told him: “If we want to get anything done, we need white athletes to stand alongside us. It can’t just be our voices, our burden.”
Well quite. Business uber alles can be just as much a political position as any other, and clearly one deeply felt by many chief executives. But let’s forget the congratulatory messages to the likes of Plank for belatedly deciding to act the idealistic ingenue, and instead reserve support for those athletes now taking personal risk because they know – they always know – that sport is political.
The Premier League at 25 – who’s taking the credit now?
Adorable scenes from what appears to be the Doha airport Caviar House stand (again), as Richard Keys and Andy Gray celebrate a very special landmark in their relationship. Namely, the time they created the Premier League.
As Keysy puts it in a tweet accompanying a shot of them cuddled up: “25 years ago we helped spark a football revolution. Happy Anniversary us!! And now we’re doing it all again.”
Well. There’s a lot to unpack there.
Primarily, you’ll note that Richard and Andy are just some of 368 people basically implying they invented the Premier League back in the day, as the latter celebrates 25 years this week. Indeed, you could have spent much of the past month wading though faux self-deprecating interviews with various chaps who had something to do with it all, but mostly belong in a category with that Dr Evil speech from Austin Powers. “My father would womanise; he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark …”
Still, not all of them are forced to live in exile. All revolutions devour their children, which makes it extra heroic that Richard claims to be “doing it all again” in Qatar. Arguably one of many countries in that region in need of a revolution, and we must wish the Wat Tyler of hanging-out-the-back-of-it all the luck in the world.