In our current age of connectedness through social media, information travels faster than ever before. When controversies and tragedies occur in real life, they are quickly met with grassroots organization and protest — sometimes in places we don’t expect. In American sports, one of the clearest recent examples is Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, all in response to a string of protests about racial injustice around the country.
As a result of increased political polarization across the spectrum, a common refrain is that things are becoming “too political” compared to how they once were, with sports leagues being a common point of discussion. Even so, the idea that sports have ever been apolitical is not borne out by history. In fact, sports leagues have been a political battleground for issues like racism and discrimination from the very beginning — often resulting in civil rights milestones and improving a sense of diversity and inclusion in the process.
How sports leagues have always helped forge national identity
Though it’s common to think of sports purely as entertainment, their meaning has been explicitly political in America as far back as the 1830s. To boost morale and heal the rift of the Civil War, baseball leagues started playing the national anthem before games in 1862 as a way of reforging the nation. The rift, of course, was largely over racial issues that persist today.
While Black Americans fought on many fronts for racial equity, sports often brought those domestic issues to international awareness. In 1936, Detroit-native boxer Joe Louis became the first Black American to win the heavyweight championship against German boxer Max Schmeling just before WWII — a victory that was overtly laden with symbolism given racial and geopolitical conflicts in the world at the time.
In 1947, baseball legend Jackie Robinson broke the sport’s color barrier when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for their 1946 season, facing racial harassment and opposition in the process. As a result of his pioneering efforts, the diversity of MLB teams increased from 1.6% Black and Latino players in 1947, his first year, to 15.3% in 1959. Outside of sports, Robinson’s achievements helped him become a civil rights advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Beyond that, he was even influential in affecting policy by publicly pushing former president JFK further on civil rights reforms.
Why diversity is better for leagues and society alike
There is no end to the pioneering athletes and leagues who have broken down barriers despite strong opposition, always bringing the world of politics and representation into sports. Although the history of that conflict in American sports has often been written in terms of race, those conflicts will likely become increasingly complex and nuanced as American leagues look for more international talent.
Historically, increased diversity and inclusion in sports has been warmly received by fans, improved team performance, and offered positive benefits for society. Still, realizing those benefits requires sports leagues to foster inclusive, collaborative cultures and to demonstrate intercultural fluency. By getting to know people who are different than we are, we “learn their language” and share skills to build a brighter tomorrow — and in the near future, doing so will also likely require additional language skills.
Why sports leagues can lead the world into a more diverse future
At Babbel, our company believes that the world is stronger through diversity and inclusion. By offering language learning programs through Babbel for Business, our vision is to bridge communication gaps between different groups, thus enabling teams to celebrate more perspectives and create a world that is more equitable for all.
As history has shown, politics in sports is not going away and is part of a long and healthy national tradition. Within sports leagues, societies have a way of working out some of the thorniest cultural issues and emerging stronger as a result. These issues have often been domestic in the past, though they will likely become international in the future. To thrive in a more connected and multicultural world, language learning will become more and more important — and sports leagues will play a vital role in that transformation.
Lilly Miner, Expert for Digital Learning
Lilly focuses on different learning methods. Whether online learning or blended learning – the motivation of the learners is particularly important to her.