Politics in Sport

Colin Kaepernick (centre). From cnbc.com.

A long while ago, a fellow blogger posted along the lines of a professional sportsman should not be pulling publicity stunts for political gain. They were talking about Colin Kaepernick, do you remember him? He was an NFL player – at one time he was the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who went to one knee during the US National Anthem. It made mainstream news bulletins, even here, for a while afterwards – not least, we were all amused because it seemed to annoy Donald Trump!

It’s interesting to me because I broadly disagree, but it took a while to get my thoughts together, and a while more to knock a post into shape. So this one has been sitting in various stages of draft for a long while.

It boils down to two questions:

  1. Did the guy have a right to hold a view?
  2. Did he have the right to express that view while doing his job?

The first of those questions is easy. Of course he has a right to hold a view. Just the same as you or me. None of our societies say that because the guy is a sportsman, he doesn’t get to have a voice.

On the second question, I have a bit more sympathy. I can imagine that there are certain jobs where you need to put your personal view to one side. Be professional. Represent your employer’s interests, not your own. But does a footballer have such a job?

I can maybe understand that somebody might think they do, but I myself think not. I was never asked to leave my political views at the door, for one, so why should he? And the idea that the 49ers checked that the guy’s politics were sound before they hired him, a guy who became their starting quarterback…. It is just a hunch but I would wager that Kaepernick got the job because of his sporting prowess, not because of his ability to behave himself.

There are precedents here, too, where sport has been used as a weapon when we don’t agree with someone, at all sorts of levels. On the one hand, we just need to think back to the schoolyard – I’m not playing with Johnny because he’s an asshole. And, it gets bigger. Not playing sport with South Africa during the apartheid era, or the US boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, or the USSR boycotting the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as a tit-for-tat. Furthermore, these boycotts transcended amateur/professional boundaries – I still remember the days when Rugby Union was amateur, and still, nobody would play against the Springboks.

So, there are all sorts of precedents for sportsmen to put politics over sport – we don’t like your behaviour toward such-and-such, so we will not play sport with you.

Maybe on that point we could argue that the sportsmen would have been happy to play, but it was the politicians who spoiled the show? But that is precisely my point – when sport and politics go head to head, politics wins out.

As regards the form of the protest, Kaepernick chose a form that many people hold dear. Maybe Kaepernick held it dear, too,and maybe that is just a measure of his dissatisfaction? Even if Kaepernick never gave a stuff about the flag, maybe he deliberately chose it because he know that other people did hold it dear? Does that not also give an indication of the level of Kaepernick’s dissatisfaction?

I think that a country can behave rightly or wrongly, just as an individual can behave rightly or wrongly. So, when people think it is behaving wrongly, what do they do? Do they call it out or let it slide? Does a country have our unequivocal support, no matter what it does?

There is a goal here of making a better society, and for me it is a no-brainer to call out the bad things, so we can try to improve them. Right and wrong is what matters here, not where we happened to be born.

I’d even take that a step further. A country is largely represented by its government. The way a country behaves towards its people, towards other countries, these things are basically the policies of its government. The government is political, and so we should we stop and ask ourselves whether the protest isn’t political too.

On the subject of the protest itself, I am happy to take Kaepernick’s view on board, and decide for myself (a) whether I care, and (b) what view I take. If the athlete withes maybe to raise my awareness of the issue, no problem. It’s only really the same as me using this blog to make people aware of my pet issues.

The last thing that I wanted to talk about was the #MeToo effect. My own experience after my stroke was to think along the lines that I was the only person on earth who could be going through what I was going through. I cringe at that now, because I know it was rubbish. In fact once I was well enough, I actively started looking for peers who might help me learn to live with myself. Knowing that there are other people who have been through, who are going through, what we’re going through, is important. Just look how #MeToo has raised the profile of sexual harassment.

So not only do I take my hat off to Kaepernick, but I salute him for being the first. If other sportsmen agreed with him, and subsequently followed his example, then maybe he highlighted a real problem after all?

Who Won The Week (5 January 2020)

I have Fandango to thank for this title – he has been posting regularly on this subject from his west-coast-USA view of the world. I am myself interested in current affairs, and normally have some nonsense or other to spout about one of the UK’s topical news stories. So, I like to join in. Maybe there’s something in your world that you’d like to post about?

I must admit that during the holiday season the news bulletins have been more sparse – not least, the politicians are away on holiday! I did, however, see a story this week which I thought worthy of comment. My first reaction was just as a feel good story, but it took about a millisecond to start wondering how its subjects ever got to a place where they needed to jump through so many hoops to get to where they want to go.

I had always looked forward to having children, eventually. But it is one thing having that vague notion that I wanted to spread my genes, quite another navigating the minefield of finding somebody to spread them with! In my twenties, I had several rocky relationships. Ultimately, all of them were doomed. When I finally met my wife, the one thing which sticks out was how smooth it all felt.

Neither of us were religious, so marriage was never really at the fore. There was one milestone decision, however – just very basically, whether we saw ourselves with each other, for the foreseeable future. That one decision made everyhing else straightforward, for me at least. It was like a set of dominos.

Once we decided that we thought of the relationship as something permanent, we bought a house togther and decided to try for a baby. I was obviously pretty potent in those days, because she became pregnant very quickly. But marriage was still only an afterthought.

In fact, it was only really because I knew the law a bit that I realised that there would be some legal advantages to us being married. Traditionally in the UK, tax has been one of them. More importantly, it gave us both certain rights when it came to custody, inheritance and property. But most of all, we figured that life would just be easier for my daughter if her mum was married to her dad. Just in terms of taking some potentially-awkward questions off the table. Okay, we’d like to think that, in this day and age, it wouldn’t come into the picture. But we’d also like to think that, in this day and age, a woman would be paid the same as a man.

It has been so, in the UK, for generations. Life is just easier if, as a couple, you happened to be married. But, of course, marriage only ever applied to mixed-sex couples (at that time). And so, very recently (2004), our liberal politicians introduced a form of marriage for same-sex couples, and called it a civil partnership. In legal terms, a civil partnership was very similar to a marriage. (Actual marriage for same-sex couples also came along later.)

Great. End of story, right? We all live in this wonderfully progressive society! Well, not quite. There is a small minority of mixed-sex couples who have decided, for one reason or another, that despite being committed to each other, marriage is not for them. They’ve often been together for as long as married couples, raised children together and so on, done everything together, except for tying the knot. And all of a sudden, these couples had been left behind.

But still, not a problem, surely? Our forward-thinking politicians just needed to tweak the law to include both same- and mixed-sex couples. Wrong. Those liberal-minded politicians refused to act.

Consequently, when, five years ago, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan applied for a Civil Partnership, they were refused. Rather than this just being a theoretical problem, it was now a real one. But even so, our government stood fast and would not change the law.

Now, it seems quite clear to me, when you allow a one set of people to do something, but prohibit another set of people from doing that exact same thing, that some discrimination is going on. This couple obviously felt the same, and started proceedings.

But despite their case being obvious to me, the government did not want to change the law. This couple had to fight their case all the way to our Supreme Court, facing opposition from the government at every step along the way. It took them four years, but in 2018 the court finally ruled in their favour. Unable to construct any further hurdles, the government finally began the process of changing the law. The new law came into force just last week, on New Year’s Eve.

So, my main winners of the week this week are Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who last Tuesday finally became civil partners at Chelsea Town Hall, among the first mixed-sex couples in the UK to do so. I wish them and their young family many more years of happiness together.

And, my second, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which made their legal challenge possible. In fact the court ruled that the civil partnership law was incompatible with the ECHR, and while we are just about still in the EU, the ECHR takes priority. I always wanted to leave the EU, but the UK should see this as an opportunity to keep the good bits, and improve the bad bits. And not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should at least be grateful that their politicians have acted while our own have sat on their backsides hands.

Belt Up

I only started driving myself in the 1990s, so have always worn a seat belt. Wearing of (front) seat belts became compulsory in the UK in 1983. It was something that had been in the pipeline since the Labour government had been in power in the late Seventies, but, you know, it takes that kind of time to bring changes through the system.

In the early Eighties I was just entering my teens, just becoming aware of the news going on around me. Just becoming aware that Michael Foot, the leader of the UK’s Labour Party, was the devil incarnate!

Yes, that is what we were told at the time. As I grew older, I realised that the media barons had a lot to lose if Foot were ever elected, and that this might perhaps have influenced their stance. Especially as, in adult life, I read biographies, including about specific issues in more detail, and realised that things in real life were somewhat more complicated than made out by the tabloids.

I learned that Foot had actually opposed making seat-belts compulsory. Why? Was it not just common sense? After all, the statistics told us they were safer. So why would somebody oppose this common sense step?

Foot had no problem accepting all the evidence. He knew full well that drivers would be safer if they wore seat belts. So what was his problem? His problem was simple. It was that people could take all the evidence on board for themselves, then decide for themselves whether wearing seat belts was a good idea or not. That he – Foot – had no right to interfere in the process. So he opposed getting involved.

So, not as unreasonable as it first sounds. We’d wear seat belts anyway, in any case, just because we understood the safety aspects, surely? Foot’s issue was simply that the state should not be instructing people how to behave (or rather, that it should not instruct them when it wasm’t absolutely necessary), that they should be allowed to decide for themselves. Especially on this specific issue, where there aren’t really any knock-on effects – if you decide not to wear a belt, you’re only really putting yourself at risk.

And this tiny issue became a big fight inside the Labour Party at that time. A storm in a teacup? What do you think?

I’m obviously aware that seat belts add to our safety, but I don’t really think that seat belts are at all relevant here. The issue, to me, seems to be who decides what we do. Are we happy that politicians, the state, know best? Or do we think that we, as individuals, are big enough and sensible enough to decide things for ourselves? Whether to pay heed to/ignore the risks?