In a few weeks, the National Football League will conclude an unusually politicized season. Most notably, Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, kept up a long protest against the national anthem, occasionally joined by others around the league. In response, companies dropped sponsorships, fans burned jerseys and league executives denounced the protesters as traitors. The controversy was so intense that it may have even hurt the NFL’s (otherwise stratospheric) television ratings.
Many critics of these protests asserted that sports and politics simply don’t mix. But that’s wrongheaded. As research I recently conducted with my colleague Emily Thorson shows, sports fandom does indeed correlate with political attitudes. And one issue that has dominated American politics in the 21st century is especially intertwined with sports culture: economic inequality.
No other form of pop escapism so consistently embeds a narrative that explains achievement in terms of meritocracy. Winners succeed, sports tell us, because they work hard. Rare is the exultant athlete, hoisting the trophy at the victors’ podium, who makes reference to the team’s free-agency binge in the offseason that helped them buy the championship. Rare is the sportswriter who can resist the heartwarming tale of a superstar born into poverty, hustling his or her way out of the ’hood. Rare is the fan who doesn’t swoon for the underdog upsetting a heavy favorite by dint of sheer effort.
“That’s what America is all about,” ESPN’s Jon Gruden once summarized, channeling his inner Horatio Alger. “A kid comes out of nowhere to become the number one draft pick.”
The pervasiveness of that attitude may help explain a puzzling fact about our era of pronounced inequality. Although the top 0.1 percent and bottom 90 percent of Americans now retain about the same share of the nation’s wealth, and the U.S. lags behind much of Europe in terms of income mobility, optimism in opportunity hasn’t abated. The Pew Research Center finds that substantial majorities of Americans think economic success is a product of individual initiative rather than outside forces.
Sports seem to offer a persuasive script for articulating that capitalist catechism. And there may actually be an empirical relationship between the two.
This fall, we fielded a nationally representative survey that asked about sports fandom and political attitudes. A series of standard questions measured respondents’ tendency to attribute economic success to personal effort rather than structural advantages — for example, whether hard work and ambition determine if people get ahead or whether growing up with wealth and high-quality education might explain one’s financial position. Controlling for demographic and ideological variables, we found that sports fans are, indeed, more likely than non-fans to believe that economic outcomes reflect meritocratic processes.
We can’t yet make a causal claim about why that is. Horatio Alger-types might be attracted to sports as a cultural tableau that ratifies their worldview. Or perhaps sports discourse inculcates values that support a winner-take-all economy. Notably, there was no relationship between reported income level and the likelihood of being a fan, so it seems that 1-percenters and poverty-liners alike love sports, even as they explain the former’s lot in life much more charitably than the latter’s.
But the study makes a few things clear. The data should dispel the fantasy that sports can somehow be insulated from politics. And, frankly, data shouldn’t be needed to back up such a claim. History is strewn with moments of metaphorical political triumph by athletes — from Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson through the current era of activism among NBA superstars, the University of Missouri football team, and Kaepernick’s protest movement. Most fans tend to assume, though, that when the hoodies come off and the “hands up” come down, the games themselves know no partisan stripe.
This is mistaken. By offering tidy metaphors for meritocracy, sports also implicitly tell us tales about why economic inequality might persist. As such, we could benefit from more athletes engaging in political consciousness, and not merely limited to issues of racial injustice.
Players might embrace a posture of humility that acknowledges luck — luck of genetics, luck of gameplay — as much as effort determined their fate. Tying their protests to charitable giving, as Kaepernick has pledged to do, could set a powerful example. Leagues might recognize that the rules they institute to help level the playing field, such as salary caps and draft orders, could have instructive real-world analogs. Forgoing tax dollars for new stadiums — which don’t boost economic growth, create almost no jobs and constrain public spending for decades — would be a start. And media and fans might begin to treat political agitators like Kaepernick, in life, as they’ve Muhammad Ali in death: less dismissively and disdainfully.
All this might represent a modest corrective to the narratives that sports culture otherwise pushes and help us empathize with those living on the wrong end of meritocracy and inequality. There is no question that in sports, as in life, winners work hard. Losers often do, too. In valorizing the former, we ought not to forget that about the latter.
Serazio is an assistant professor of communication at Boston College and the author of “Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing.”