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Stick to Politics

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Deitchman
May 15, 2023

​“Stick to sports” is a completely inappropriate request of athletes, as they are citizens and members of society with every right to have a say on the direction of politics and policy. On the other hand, it is political leaders who should stay in their lane and limit their involvement in sports. Policymakers are welcome to support sports and oversee their impact on society, but meddling for political gain can have a deleterious impact on the games themselves and the overall well-being of our communities.

​One reason why state and local politicians are so personally invested in sports is the taxpayer subsidies invested in athletic facilities. The competition for professional teams to stay in a particular location or find a new home has proven lucrative for the private franchises at a cost to the public coffers for expensive stadiums with amenities catered to wealthy sponsors and fans. There are payoffs to these stadiums, both financially through the economic activity that surrounds well-attended events as well as to the sense of community that comes from supporting the local club, but it’s still a costly transfer of resources from everyday citizens to the typically-billionaire owners of the teams. That’s not to say there aren’t philanthropic owners, such as Arthur Blank of the Atlanta Falcons in the National Football League and Atlanta United in Major League Soccer, who put their riches towards the communities in and around their stadiums. The scarcity of teams and the zero-sum nature of team retention and recruitment, however, should concern leaders who want to address other more mundane but more important priorities.

​Increasingly the billionaires involved in sports are nations doing so to burnish their public reputations through popular activities. There’s a long history of countries spending extravagantly on sporting spectacles as propaganda, most famously and egregiously the Nazi Germany Olympics of 1936. Today Saudi Arabia has lavishly recruited many top professional golfers using its sovereign wealth fund to its LIV Tour to attempt to “sports wash” its human rights abuses. From last year’s spectacle at the Qatar World Cup to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s ownership of the Chelsea Football Club in England, where sanctions eventually forced him to sell the club at great profit to himself, examples abound of sports, rather than severing up peace and globalization through shared experience, serving the needs of autocrats, fascists and other problematic world leaders. 

​Politicians also have begun inserting themselves into the rules and regulations on the field. The participation of transgender athletes, particularly in women’s sports, is a contentious decision as sporting authorities consider competitive balance and the importance of participation. Sports often have categorizations around gender, age, weight in combat sports, student status in scholastic sports and other considerations to open the sports to more people while maintaining the integrity of the games. In exclusionary efforts politicians in states across the county, such as Florida, have sought blanket bans on transgender athletes. By putting this into the political discourse, rather than limiting government intervention and allowing sports to self-govern, the issue has become a toxic culture war wedge rather than a reasonable and rational effort to support fair categorical competition.

​Inclusion and participation, particularly at the youth levels, are as important as winning and losing.  Sports today are a sector of the economy and some of the most important content for television or streaming. Ultimately, however, these are games that are fun and recreational. There has been a decline in sports programs and, in a country where obesity and loneliness are two significant public health challenges, this is a serious problem. Beyond the physical and psychological benefits of sports participation, players can learn leadership, discipline, sportsmanship and other beneficial qualities that assist them in becoming effective members of the workforce and contemporary society.

​While fewer people are playing sports, there has been increased legalization of sports gambling in the United States in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling and legislative action in the States. In fact, this may soon be an area that policymakers need to reconsider. The impact of problem gambling is well documented, even if it’s a new opportunity for taxation. Increasingly we may start seeing scandals akin to the 1919 Chicago White Sox cavorting with bettors to throw the World Series, the infamous Black Sox Scandal that threatened the sanctity of Major League Baseball, with so much money hinging on outcomes. If politicians want to intervene in sports, it should be about expanding participation on the playing field while protecting sports from pecuniary problems. Otherwise, “stick to politics.”

AuthorBenjamin Deitchman is a public policy practitioner and youth soccer coach in Atlanta, Georgia.  Dr. Deitchman’s email address is [email protected] and he is on Twitter (for now) @Deitchman.  

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