Grayson Allen caused a stir two weeks ago when he was quoted describing Chipotle’s new queso as “underwhelming” at ACC Media Day. Although Bloomberg described the Blue Devil’s disparaging comments as simply echoing the trend of negative criticism that the company has received over its new menu addition, fans still took to their social media to support or shame Allen’s remarks. Last week, Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter also found himself implicated in a controversy related to sports marketing when his comments blaming NFL protests for poor pizza sales received waves of instant and merciless backlash via social media. Some fans have even threatened to boycott the official pizza sponsor of the NFL, and in a strange turn of events neo-Nazis have declared the brand the official pizza of the alt-right. Although seemingly unrelated, both events highlight the ways in which capitalism, politics and sports have become intertwined within our consumerist society. In light of these recent events within the realm of high-profile sports, it is a relationship worth examining in significant depth.
We often admire professional athletes for embodying Americana, and for their ability to bring people together. However, we cannot forget that the NFL, NBA and NCAA are undeniably structured around capital-oriented business models. Money is the motive and the motor; from branding to marketing, an increase in revenue is the goal and the driving force of these teams. Professional sports are billion-dollar industries where players are the employees and the owners are employers. It is an industry where there remains a clear racial dichotomy between the bosses and players; seventy percent of NFL players are black, a statistic that makes racially insensitive remarks by white owners even more appalling. When the owner of the Houston Texans remarks, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” we are painfully reminded of Black Lives Matter and its real-life implications for millions of black Americans. We are reminded of the systemic racism behind Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Just as we cannot forget that sports are inherently financially driven, we must also recognize that they are inherently political.
Moreover, as consumers of high-profile sports, many spectators possess the ability to affect change within capital-oriented professional sports leagues. Critics of Kaepernick’s protest responded to his actions by boycotting NFL merchandise and games. Some fans claimed that their patriotism was being threatened while others criticized Kaepernick for utilizing an “apolitical” platform on the field to express political discontent. In either case, fans reacted as consumers, knowing that attacking revenue represented the best avenue for backlash against Kaepernick. We do not watch the Superbowl and the NBA championships simply as innocent lovers of sport and competition. We watch them through lenses tinted with our political biases, and we love our sports stars from the bottom of our pockets.
As we prepare for another exciting men’s basketball season here at Duke, let us remind ourselves of the inherently political nature of sports even within the confines of Cameron. The complex dynamic existing between professional sports, politics and consumerism is one not only limited to the NBA or NFL; our high-profile men’s basketball team is no different. At a university where Division I college sports is heavily interwoven into the fabric of campus life, it is something worth remembering next time we go cheering for the Blue Devils at Wallace Wade and Cameron.
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