Sports & Society: Fulfilling Mandela’s vision?
“Mandela realized the transformative and unifying power of sports, and used that power to make changes that protests and diplomacy could not,” read the featured story on Yahoo! Sports.
“We spend a lot of time in the sports business making metaphors and symbols out of athletes and their achievements,” the introduction to a collection of memories by ESPN writers said. “We build heroes and role models from money and numbers and mud and straw. But Mr. Mandela was the thing itself. We owe him an inexpressible debt.”
“Sport has the power to change the world,” multiple media outlets recalled Mandela saying. As anyone who has seen the film “Invictus” about the South African national rugby team knows, Mandela harnessed the visual optics and substantial cultural impact of sports to advance his message of ending apartheid in South Africa. Mandela also served as a symbolic figure of South Africa’s progress during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in the country.
After his death and the outpouring of memories about his belief in sports’ promise, it is fitting to pose a challenging question: are sports, indeed, fulfilling that promise?
On the same afternoon that Yahoo! Sports splashed its commemoration of Mandela across the home page, a top headline revealed that there would be no charges filed against Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy front-runner Jameis Winston. The press conference announcing the Winston news included a bevy of chuckles and laughs about a sexual assault case, as the website Deadspin deftly compiled into one video.
Another top headline reported that exiled Miami Dolphins’ lineman Jonathan Martin would meet with an investigator over the team’s bullying scandal. Martin’s exile from the Dolphins was indeed originally self-imposed but only after he received a racist and misogynist voicemail from teammate Richie Incognito—part of alleged ongoing harassment toward Martin. The story caused an uproar at the start but predictably died down amid the equally predictable torrent of fan comments that Martin should “man up” and stop being a “p—y.” Of course, bullying is an issue that extends well beyond the NFL and into schools across the country.
The New York Times reported that aggressor Incognito had once been bullied himself for his weight and timid personality. “Then,” The Times’ Bill Pennington wrote, “urged by his father, the Little Leaguer fought back, pummeling one of his tormentors, blackening both his eyes.” That’s the same response many fans, players and even reportedly Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland wanted from Martin. They wanted him to become Incognito, the man who called Martin a “half-n—–” and threatened to “slap [his] real mother across the face.”
Sports are not responsible for creating a pervasive culture of bullying in schools and the workplace, but they do elevate the values we consider most sacred for mass public consumption. Mandela capitalized on that potential to inspire unity and inclusion.
Several activists are still attempting to do the same. Just last week, Sigma Iota Rho, the Washington University International and Area Studies honorary, ran a panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes in regard to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Russia has cracked down on the LGBT community after passing a repressive law against “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” The Sochi Games will serve as a major test of true support for LGBT causes among athletes, the media and viewers. By the time St. Louis hosts the 2016 North America Outgames, a multi-sport event held every few years by the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association, hopefully serious progress will have been made. After Sochi, maybe the world will realize that LGBT athletes are not only deserving of respect as athletes but as equal humans in all societies.
Yet often we only selectively or superficially embrace those values that Mandela championed. The NFL, our most prominent American sports league, is the most pertinent example. The Martin controversy demonstrated that a player objecting to harassment of himself and his family would face isolation.
Meanwhile, the NFL has partnered with the You Can Play Project to encourage LGBT participation in football. Yet the signing of at least one openly gay player fell apart in the league, according to a report by Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman. With general managers still reportedly quizzing prospective draftees if they have girlfriends and locker room cultures like that of the Dolphins being allowed to flourish, the NFL’s symbolic partnership seems to lack much real meaning.
We love the opulence and glory of sports because they are what make the games and figures so amazing. But let’s also endeavor to make them converge with positive values so that we are not simply commemorating Mandela’s ideals but, rather, acting upon them.