The Colin Kaepernick affair: Should sport and politics ever mix?

Sport and politics should never mix.

That was the view of former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott ahead of the NRL Grand Final.

Abbott backed a petition calling for US rapper Macklemore’s pro-gay rights song Same Love to be banned from the half-time entertainment, tweeting: “Footy fans shouldn't be subjected to a politicised grand final. Sport is sport!”

The petition came as Australia voted on whether to legalise same-sex marriage, but Macklemore performed the song to the delight of fans at the ANZ Stadium.

Abbott’s comments on sport and politics seem odd considering that Department of Finance records show taxpayers paid for him and his family to attend numerous sporting events during his time in office.

In reality, sport and politics have always been intertwined; whether it be the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics Games, the 1972 shooting of Israeli athletes, or numerous international teams that boycotted South Africa during the apartheid era or missed out at the 1980 or 1984 Olympic Games because of government boycotts.

Heads of State are often involved in global sports campaigning, given the economic and reputational benefits of staging the Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup or smaller events of national interest.

At an elite level, sport gives individuals a global platform to express themselves and political statements are often made as a result.

During his time at the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand while the American national anthem was played, in reaction to perceived racial injustice.

He recently filed a lawsuit against the 32 NFL team owners, claiming that they had colluded to keep him out of the league after he opted out of his previous contract in March.

Recent NFL games saw numerous players take a knee during the anthem to show their solidarity with Kaepernick and to protest at comments made by Donald Trump.

NFL players are not the only ones that Trump has criticised of late, with the NBA champions Golden State Warriors having their invitation to the White House withdrawn after a number of players suggested they may decline the official visit.

In Europe, Barcelona played their La Liga game with Las Palmas behind closed doors at the start of October after their request for a postponement because of Catalonia's independence referendum was rejected.

Barcelona’s motto ‘Més que un club’ translates as ‘more than a club’, and those words felt particularly meaningful throughout the encounter.

Barca even wore training shirts with the colours of the Catalonian flag and defender Gerard Piqué posted a picture of him voting in the referendum before the match. 

Opponents Las Palmas made a statement of their own by putting a Spanish flag on their kit to promote a ‘united’ Spain.

But this was far from a united Spain: it was a political statement that underlined the role that sports clubs, players and organisations play in shaping ideologies and opinions.

It seems remarkable that some people are still of the belief that sport and politics should not mix or ignore the platform that sports public relations can provide. 

Recent events have shown numerous examples of a political issue becoming the focal point of a sporting event. Sport offers an escapism from everyday life for many fans; an opportunity to put aside religious and political views in a way that only sport can.

Last month saw the Syrian men’s national football team score a 93rd minute equaliser to secure a  Football World Cup play-off against Australia, a remarkable achievement considering they had to play their ‘home’ matches 4,500 miles away in Malaysia.

Their dream ended following an agonising extra-time defeat against the Socceroos, but regardless of the result in any sport, politics will never be far away from the action.

* Calacus works with a wide range of national and international sports federations so get in touch if you would like to discuss your communications challenges and opportunities.