The cultural revolution is devouring sport

The cultural revolution is devouring sport

From football to NASCAR, every sport is now a platform for relentless propaganda.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Culture Identity Politics Sport UK USA World

For the best part of two weeks, the spat between football pundit Gary Lineker and the BBC dominated the news agenda. Despite Lineker’s refusal to apologise for potentially breaching BBC impartiality rules in his attack on the government’s immigration policy, the BBC bent over backwards to keep him employed. Supported by other celebrity football commentators, Lineker demonstrated that he possessed far more cultural power than his employer. And so, to much acclaim from the woke elites, he has been reinstated as host of Match of the Day.

The Lineker affair goes well beyond the BBC. It is ultimately a demonstration of power by Britain’s cultural oligarchy. Every cultural institution in the UK now subscribes to this elite’s ideology. And that goes for the institution of sport itself.

After all, the main protagonists on Team Lineker come from the world of football and sport more broadly. They acted as if the politicisation of sport is perfectly normal. And no wonder. Since the turn of the century, sport has become a key target for culture warriors and woke corporate elites. Their campaign has been particularly successful in the United States, but it is now also fast gaining influence over sports culture in the UK.

This capture of sport by woke ideology is significant. Sport has stood out longer against the influence of woke ideology than any other cultural institution in the Anglosphere. This is because most athletes and fans have tended to be resistant to right-on views. They are not the natural constituency for woke ideology.

But that hasn’t put off the ideologues. They have long recognised the importance of capturing and ultimately controlling sport. From their standpoint, the popularity of sport makes it an ideal platform for influencing the masses. As one commentator in the Guardian explains: ‘Footballers are heroes to hundreds of thousands of young people and by talking about abortion, race or LGBT issues, they can frame the debate. It’s a power that they’re well aware of.’ One footballer, Troy Deeney, told the Guardian recently that, thanks to footballers’ large social-media profiles, ‘we can shape the conversation as much as [the media] do’.

‘Shaping the conversation’ is a euphemism for promoting the elites’ worldview, including gender ideology and critical race theory. And it’s true that, in recent years, sporting organisations and individual athletes have sought to influence – that is, to dominate – the conversation about various ‘social justice’ causes.

One of the most spectacular successes of this crusade is the capture of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in the US. NASCAR is not just another sport. The cultural elites regard NASCAR fans as white-trash deplorables, whose values are antithetical to their own.

That’s why, in recent years, NASCAR higher-ups have continually sought to transform the opinions of NASCAR fans by promoting woke causes. In June last year, the NASCAR official Twitter apologised to the ‘LGBTQ+ community’ for its ‘recent actions’. This was a reference to its decision to invite Texas governor Greg Abbott to wave the green starting flag at the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race. Woke ideologues regard Abbott as persona non grata because he has called for an investigation into gender-affirming treatments on transgender teenagers in Texas.

This tweet, pledging to create a more inclusive environment ‘in our workplaces, at the race track and in the stands’, was the NASCAR bosses’ way of promising to cleanse the sport of the values and attitudes traditionally associated with fans. Like Lineker’s criticism of the UK government’s immigration policy, the NASCAR tweet represents a more widespread politicisation of sports culture.

Indeed, culture warriors have made significant progress in capturing and instrumentalising sport. In the US, Major League Baseball (MLB) has been eager to demonstrate its willingness to participate in the culture wars. In the summer of 2021, it decided to punish the state of Georgia for adopting a so-called voter-integrity law – a law perceived as making it more difficult for minorities to vote – by cancelling the All-Star game that was set to be held in Atlanta, the state capital. The MLB boycott cost Atlanta an estimated $70million.

A variety of sports have also embraced trans-rights activism, despite the threat it poses to women’s sports. Many sporting bodies now allow men identifying as women to participate in female sporting competitions. As a post by the headquarters of the National Hockey League (NHL) put it: ‘Transwomen are women. Transmen are men. Nonbinary identity is real.’

Indeed, the NHL is one of the worst offenders when it comes to promoting woke causes. In February 2022, it tweeted about the requirements for who could participate in its ‘Pathway to Hockey Summit’ jobs fair: ‘Participants must be 18 years of age or older, based in the US, and identify as female, black, Asian / Pacific Islander, Hispanic / Latino, indigenous, LGBTQIA+ and / or a person with a disability.’ The message was clear – men, especially heterosexual white men, need not apply.

Non-American sports institutions may not have gone as far as the NHL. But, as the recent World Cup in Qatar demonstrated, football is not far behind. Historians will look back on this event as the first ever World Cup devoted to competitive virtue-signalling.

Before the World Cup had even started, commentators, broadcasters and quite a few teams seemingly became experts in social justice. Football pundits seemed more interested in highlighting the injustices in Qatari society than in actually talking about football. Fans across the West were subjected to constant lectures on the treatment of Qatar’s migrant workers and the plight of various sexual minorities.

In the run-up to the World Cup, the Australian football team produced a video highlighting Qatar’s human-rights abuses. Sixteen of the players participated in the video, attacking the abuse of migrant workers and the Qatari authorities’ refusal to let LGBT people ‘love the person that they choose’.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Dutch team organised the OneLove campaign to promote inclusion and ‘send a message against discrimination’. Ten football teams from Europe decided to get on board and announced that their captains would wear the OneLove rainbow armband in Qatar. Like the Dutch, the English Football Association also decided to ‘send a message’ to Qatar, and the English media partook in ceaseless virtue-signalling during the tournament.

It is not only the sporting bodies that have played a leading role in politicising sport. The corporate world also has a lot to answer for. Perhaps the best example of this is big business’ adoption of former American football player Colin Kaepernick as its poster boy for social justice. Kaepernick received a multimillion-dollar endorsement contract from Nike after he started the trend of NFL players kneeling rather than standing during the US national anthem. Nike’s ‘Believe in Something’ marketing campaign transformed Kaepernick into a cultural hero.

Corporations have also played a major role in transforming black NASCAR racer Bubba Wallace into an elite cause célèbre. Wallace’s claim to fame was that he wore an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ t-shirt at NASCAR events and raced with ‘Black Lives Matter’ painted on the hood of his car. The corporates loved his schtick so much that he acquired ‘a sponsorship portfolio so deep’ that he could afford to build a whole team around himself at the prestigious Daytona 500 race. According to Market Watch, the corporate interest in Wallace had less to do with his racing and more to do with his activism. Referring to his conversation with corporate sponsors, Wallace recalled that they were most interested in how he was pushing for change off the track. ‘They are more focussed on the messaging and how we can ignite others to do better and be better’, he said. Corporate support for ‘doing better’, of course, amounts to support for cultural regime change.

Most of the time, fans feel powerless to counter the colonisation of their sports by political activists. Millions of fans are unhappy, yet they feel under pressure to keep their views to themselves. And so the cultural revolution transforming the world of sport continues apace.

However, it is possible to resist. Take the example of my football club, Tottenham Hotspur. For years, both the club’s management and sections of the media elite have waged a campaign to ban Spurs fans from calling themselves the Yid Army and from chanting ‘Yiddo’ at matches. They claim that the use of the Y-word is racist and anti-Semitic.

Anyone who attends a Spurs match will realise right away that the Yid chants have nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Spurs have long had a large Jewish fanbase. These fans, both Jewish and gentile, have embraced the label as an act of solidarity and defiance. What makes the campaign to ban the Y-word at Spurs particularly inane is that its real target is not racist fans, but fans who use the term as a badge of honour.

Thankfully, Spurs supporters have resisted attempts by busybody moral entrepreneurs to impose changes on their fan culture. The last time that the Spurs management sought to impose a ban on chanting the Y-word, the stadium erupted with non-stop chanting of ‘Yiddo, Yiddo’.

As the experience at Tottenham suggests, the culture war has not been totally lost. If fans resist the colonisation of their sports, then they may well discover that they possess more power than they imagined. Millions of football fans intuitively feel that Lineker and his mates are not on their side. It is about time we let them know how we feel about their attempt to politicise sport.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

Pictures by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture Identity Politics Sport UK USA World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today