Race is a constant underlying theme in American sports — in conversations about labor vs. ownership, social responsibility, changing demographics and meritocracy — and this year, it seemed like everywhere you looked, the subtext was becoming text. Professional athletes became more outspoken about racial controversies, while the debate over the name of a certain NFL football team became so prominent that more sportswriters and news outlets felt they had to pick a side. And of course, because it's sports, there were some Big Important Firsts.
Donald Sterling Loses The Clippers
As a real estate mogul, Donald Sterling had long been dogged by charges that he discriminated against black tenants; he spent millions to settle bias claims. In his capacity as owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, he had been unsuccessfully sued for discrimination by the team's former general manager, Elgin Baylor.
But it wasn't until this year — when a close personal friend of Sterling surreptitiously recorded him saying ugly things about black people — did any of those prior controversies become national news. When they did, Sterling's behavior sparked a scandal of unprecedented consequence. The NBA players union called for Sterling to be suspended. Adam Silver, the league's commissioner, went even further; he fined Sterling $2.5 million and permanently stripped him of his ownership.
As we wrote when it was going down, the whole affair underscored some of the frays in the peculiar social contract of pro sports, with a labor class made up mostly of people of color and an ownership class made up almost entirely of white dudes. That both the league's owners and the players are comfortably ensconced in the upper reaches of the 1 percent tends to obscure the nature of their relationship.
"A whole lot of NBA players are incredibly rich, and a bunch of them are cultural icons," writes Josh Levin of Slate. "But like Sterling says, it's the super-duper-rich guys who control the league while the players provide the entertainment. When an NBA owner tells his players to jump, the guys in sneakers are contractually obligated to ask how high."
When Silver announced the sanctions, he seemed genuinely upset and empathetic to the Clippers players who were swept up in the controversy. The commissioner's punishment keeps the NBA's peculiar social contract in place, even as the Sterling scandal revealed just how easily that contract can be broken.
When Kansas City Royals Superfan SungWoo Lee Won Everything
In October, Code Switch contributor Steve Haruch wrote about an avid fan of the Kansas City Royals. SungWoo Lee, a 38-year-old from Seoul, South Korea, was known for lighting up the Royals' online message boards. Lee had the chance to visit Kansas City in August and emerged as a — sort of — good luck charm.
"Long a fixture on Royals message boards and in the streams of 'Royals Twitter,' Lee lives and breathes by the team — often defying the time difference to follow games late into the Korean night. This is a team that lost 90 games or more in 10 different seasons between 2000 and 2013, so that's the definition of losing sleep. It's the kind of devotion to a seemingly lost cause that Kansas City fans could relate to, and Lee became a local celebrity almost immediately after he stepped off the jetway."
Every now and then, the die-hard fans who watch and consume sports become as much the story as the game itself.
The Ongoing Saga Of The Washington Football Team's Name
The decades-long debate over the Redskins' name hasn't really been all that much of a debate, as strong majorities of Americans have responded to complaints about the name from Native American groups — that it's racist and demeaning — with little more than a shrug.
But earlier this year, several Native groups turned up the heat against the team; they posted this searing, two-minute online ad that went live around the time of the Super Bowl in February.
Daniel Snyder, the team's owner, has maintained that he will never change the name. In March, he started an organization called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Snyder said it will try to "tackle the troubling realities facing so many tribes across our country."
"The more I heard, the more I've learned, and the more I saw, the more resolved I became about helping to address the challenges that plague the Native American community. In speaking face-to-face with Native American leaders and community members, it's plain to see they need action, not words."
Suffice it to say, a lot of people weren't feeling that gesture and felt that it was a cynical ploy to dampen criticism of Snyder and the team's name. (And, side note: You might remember a related tweet sent from Stephen Colbert's account that launched a lot of discussion and the hashtag campaign #CancelColbert.)
In June, though, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sided with a group of Native Americans who filed a suit arguing that the name violated rules about trademarks that "may disparage" individuals or groups or "bring them into contempt or disrepute." The government canceled the Redskins trademark. (It's still not clear what the repercussions of this will be, although they are potentially substantial.) Still, the Redskins' legal counsel said the decision wouldn't matter all that much to the team's ownership. "We've seen this story before. And just like last time, today's ruling will have no effect at all on the team's ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo," the team's trademark attorney said.
But just before the season started, the Washington Post — the team's hometown paper — announced in an editorial that it would no longer use the name Redskins on its op-ed pages. (After that, Code Switch put together a not-quite-complete list of outlets and sports journos who have decided to abstain from using the team's name.)
Once this football season was actually underway, the team was its usual hapless self on the field. But off the field, players were occasionally greeted by protesters who were less than thrilled with the team's moniker.
Most polls show that the number of people who actually want the team's name changed is still pretty small — only about 14 percent of Americans support a name change. But that number is higher than polls from last year, and double what the number was about two decades ago. It suggests that the needle might be moving in this conversation, albeit very, very slowly.
Racial And Identity Politics On The Pitch
The quadrennial World Cup is the most obsessively watched sporting event in the world; it's an orgy of nationalism and marketing and, yes, some pretty damn good soccer. As fun as this past summer's tournament was, it was hardly a distraction from politics and identity. If anything, it underlines it all.
Racism in soccer has been an ugly bugbear of top-flight leagues for some time, especially in Europe. There have been official campaigns against racist fan chants against players, and officials have cracked down on fan groups that participate in them. That dilemma became international news again in the lead-up to this year's World Cup, after a Spanish fan threw a banana at the Brazilian player Dani Alves as he lined up for a corner kick. (Alves' reaction was full of fun: He calmly peeled the banana, took out a bite, and took the kick. Later, he jokingly thanked the fan for the potassium because it kept him from cramping up.)
Then a hashtag expressing solidarity with Alves exploded on social media — #weareallmonkeys — and lots of big-time footballers shared pics of themselves eating bananas in support. (It turned out the social media response came from a marketing campaign.)
Laurent Dubois, a historian at Duke, told us in May that what we're seeing is some of the anxieties over changing racial dynamics in Europe playing out on the pitch and in the stands.
"In the 1980s, the European Union overturned the rules that capped the number of non-European players a team could field. At the same time, European countries were loosening up regulations on privately owned television networks, resulting in an influx of money to the sport. Players from all over the world began heading to Europe to play.
" 'When you watch [the United Kingdom's] Premier League now, you're not expecting to see all British players,' Dubois said. 'You're assuming you're going to see someone from Cote D'Ivoire or whatever.'
"And that's part of what's fueling incidents like this. 'Part of this is about anxieties around immigration from non-European countries,' Dubois said. Some of the hooliganism that used to plague matches was blamed on far-right groups, but active anti-hooligan measures and the rising price of tickets to matches squeezed a lot of those elements out."
And, he said, the fan taunts are a good example of how messy tribalism can be: "In almost every case where fans have thrown bananas onto the pitch against players on the other team, those fans have been chanting for the black players on their own team," he said. Those fans rationalize it as just another way to rattle players from the opposing team. "If you acted like you did in the stadium as you were walking down the street, people would think you were insane," he said. "But in the stands, it's supposed to be a place where you can [let loose]."
The World Cup also tends to complicate folks' allegiances. In June, Brenda Salinas, a Mexican-American who was a devotee of El Tri, squirmed as she found herself rooting for the surprising American side to advance.
"As the game [against Portugal] progressed, I tensed up into a tight little ball, stress-eating tortilla chips on the couch. After his first mistake, keeper Tim Howard made save after incredible save. Before the referee called overtime, it looked like Team USA was going to escape the 'Group of Death.'
"And then, the heartbreaking last minute. That the American team had just broken my heart meant that my allegiance was truly split down the middle. What did this mean about my Mexicanness? Could I be a part of la raza and cheer for both teams? ...
"There's no Latino/Chicano/Tejano/immigrant team for me to identify with, so who am I really for? It's a question that I've been asking since my family moved to this country in 1996. Back then, I told everyone that one day I would plant the Mexican flag on the moon, but before that, I was going to represent the U.S. as an Olympic rhythmic gymnast. By the 2012 Olympics, I found myself identifying with the independent athletes, competing without a country's flag."
A Historic Honor For A Traditionally Native Sport
The Tewaaraton trophy is college lacrosse's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, given to the nation's top men's and women's player each year. The name is a nod to the sport's roots — it originated among Native American groups and was played for recreation and as a medicine game; tewaaraton is the Mohawk word for lacrosse, and the bronze trophy depicts a Mohawk man with a lacrosse stick surging forward. The sport is still popular on the reservation, but no Native players had ever taken home its top honor.
That is, until this year when two did. Brothers Miles and Lyle Thompson of the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York made up two-thirds of the fearsome, record-setting attack for the University of Albany-SUNY Great Danes — their cousin Ty was the other part of their troika — and the two became its first co-winners of the Tewaaraton in May.
The Thompsons made waves in the lacrosse world when they opted to go to play for the less-heralded Albany Great Danes instead of the Syracuse Orange, a traditional lacrosse power with a long history of recruiting Native players. One of those Syracuse players was their older brother, Jeremy. "I could coach another 25 years and not find another situation like this," their coach said.
He pointed specifically to their stick skills and athleticism, and also to the brothers' uncommonly close bond. "The two of them are as close as twins as you could be without them being twins," he said.
They sent out this tweet the morning after their big win: