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As expected, the U.S. Women’s National Team won the Women’s World Cup. As also expected, members of the women’s team, led by chief spokeswoman Megan Rapinoe, were known as much for their politics as for their play. Rapinoe got it going with her comment that she wasn’t going to visit the “f–ing” White House if she was invited, which was seconded and thirded by players Alex Morgan and Ali Krieger. Rapinoe, who is openly gay, has also refused to sing the national anthem. Then there is the claim that the women’s team is paid less than the men’s team. It turns out, however, that the female players earn more than their male counterparts based on the percentage of overall league profits they receive in wages.
It’s not the first time in recent weeks that women’s soccer has been a focal point for politics rather than sport. Toward the end of June, the Vatican Women’s Soccer Team traveled to Austria to play an “international friendly.” Before the game, some of the Austrian team’s player took the opportunity to display pro-abortion slogans obviously meant as a confrontational act toward the Vatican team. The Vatican team promptly canceled the game.
One supposes that since women are thought to be particularly pro-abortion, women’s sports have become a focal point for the promotion of politics over sport. The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has been a leader in this area. The WNBA’s change from a sports organization to a political organization started in 2017 when the owners of the Seattle Storm franchise decided to host a Planned Parenthood night. The team held a half-hour rally before the game and also donated $5 from each ticket to Planned Parenthood, which came to $41,790. According to Planned Parenthood’s website, an abortion at a Planned Parenthood facility costs between $350 and $950 depending on the how far along gestationally the unborn child is. Taking a median figure of $650, the team raised enough to fund 64 abortions. Yay, Team!
Seeing how wonderfully that experiment went, the entire league made the jump into politics. All the teams now participate in a program called “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” which donates $5 to one of six organizations on a list chosen by the WNBA. Planned Parenthood is prominently on the list.
Of course, it’s not just the women who see sport as a way to push their political views. Starting with Colin Kaepernick, many NFL players have knelt or otherwise made political gestures during the national anthem. That led to people of different political persuasions either supporting or condemning the displays. But either way it certainly took the focus away from the game itself.
The idea that sport is really just a platform to push a political agenda is a kind of creeping totalitarianism. It’s a way of saying that everything is political, down to the team that you root for. And it says to athletes that it’s not enough for them to hit a ball or kick a ball or catch a pass; they are now expected to be Social Justice Warriors.
I grew up in Ohio during the 1970s, the era of the Big Red Machine. On that team I remember Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver, Dave Concepcion, Joe Morgan, George Foster, and of course Pete Rose. I followed them religiously for several years, listening to games on the radio and getting the box scores the only way they were available then: in the next day’s newspaper. The players for the Cincinnati Reds probably had opinions on the various political issues of the day. But if they did, I have no idea what they were. I think the team was better off for that. I know the fans were better off, because I could just enjoy their play, and enjoy the tension of the yearly pennant race, without having to care whether their politics were my politics.
It’s not easy to root for a team when their politics are so in your face. Knowing the views of the U.S. women’s soccer team made it harder for me to enjoy the World Cup. Yes, I wanted the team to win since they represent my country; but it was clear that other than that they didn’t represent me. So, I was conflicted watching games, because if they didn’t do well then we wouldn’t have to talk about their politics any more.
Last Sunday evening, after the American women won the World Cup, the American men also played a championship game: the CONCACAF Gold Cup against Mexico. This was a regional championship, not nearly so important as the World Cup. But watching that game I felt no conflict. It might be possible to research the political leanings of Christian Pulisic, or Michael Bradley, or Jozy Altidore, or other members of the U.S. men’s team, but it is significant that their views are not widely known. Right or Left, Democrat or Republican—everybody can cheer for the U.S. men with no conflicted feelings.
Some may say that athletes should use their position to talk about societal issues. After all, how important are sports compared to the momentous issues of the day? Isn’t abortion or racism or immigration or whatever else far more important than any game?
Yes, in a way. But, no in a way.
People naturally need to be part of communities, first the family community but then the communities of school and church and social clubs. We pray together in our parishes not because God needs to be worshiped by a community, but because we need a community of like-minded people to support us in our Christian journey.
In a similar way, sport forms communities. Especially when one has followed a team for years or decades, one is experiencing a form of love within a community. Sports fans never say “My team won.” They say “We won.” The we in this case is not to say that the fan is a member of the team, but that the fan is a member of the community which includes the team and all the fans. This community includes even past fans and future fans—fathers and grandfathers who loved the team and passed that love down and young children who some day (if we raise them right) will be fans. It’s not just the members of the team who win or lose. It’s the whole community. So saying we won or we lost is entirely appropriate.
We should be able to form these sports communities without regard to politics. We should be able to cheer for our local teams no matter their political views or our political views. And we should be able to enjoy the soccer of the U.S. Women’s National Team without knowing or caring what they think about politics. We should even be able to go to a WNBA game without that being a show of support for Planned Parenthood. We should be able to just enjoy the sport, along with others who enjoy it, and at least for the duration of the game.
Totalitarians make everything into politics and politics into everything. If they take the sheer joy of sport away from us, then they steal much indeed.