By Sam Winemiller
Years down the road, when we reflect upon the intersection of U.S. politics and sport in 2017, the frame that will most likely dominate our remembrance will be that of resistance from athletes against the government and forces in power. Memories of Colin Kaepernick’s continuing efforts for social justice despite conspicuous unemployment, the escalation of NFL protests, and the Twitter storm of professional athletes responding to attacks from President Donald Trump: these together will define textbooks’ depiction of U.S. politics and sports in 2017.
These events, while important, were made all the more noticeable because they tread against the traditional interaction of sport and politics in the United States. Their significance is stark against a historical background of cooperation between the U.S. government and high-profile sports in America. Certainly, there are many important past examples of athletes using their platforms to speak out against systemic injustice, but more commonly and perhaps more subtly, sports have been utilized to promote patriotism and strengthen national identification amongst American citizens. Even amidst contentiousness, we would be remiss to overlook important events related to sport’s promotional relationship with U.S. nationalism in 2017.
For example, the 2017 NFL Super Bowl was notable for being the first ever Super Bowl to be decided in overtime, and the for the largest comeback victory. It was also noteworthy because it featured the two teams, the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots, which received the most funding in paid patriotism from the U.S. military between 2012 and 2015, according to an investigative report produced by U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. During that time period, the Department of Defense paid NFL teams over $6 million in taxpayer money to make grand patriotic displays at home games, and while the practice has now been deserted, the foremost recipients of this funding were still on-display in the biggest football game of 2017.
While the Super Bowl highlights the intersections of sport and nationalism on the domestic front, the promotion of nationalistic pride through sport is also often achieved during international competition. In the words of historian E.J. Hobsbawm, “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.” Or in the case of hockey or baseball, six and nine people. Or for tennis, maybe just one or two. Indeed, teams representing the United States won the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in hockey, and won the 2017 World Baseball Classic. In tennis, Serena Williams and Venus Williams continued their dominance on a national stage, meeting head-to-head at the Australian Open (Serena taking that one), while Venus reached the final at Wimbledon.
The U.S. also showed nationalistic pride when it landed its first Olympics since 2002 as the IOC selected Los Angeles to host the 2028 summer games, albeit in an unprecedented agreement relieving Los Angeles from having to bid again after conceding the 2024 summer games to Paris. This was due in part to the IOC’s relative embarrassment in many countries retracting bids for the 2024 games due to citizen disapproval. Still, this decision marks an important moment for sport and nationalism in the United States, especially considering the historical significance of Los Angeles as host city, whose most recent Olympics in 1984 were of particular patriotic importance for the United States during the Cold War.
Not all went well for U.S. on the international sporting stage in 2017, however. The failure of the men’s soccer team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after losing to a last-place Trinidad and Tobago team stands as one of the more disappointing recent on-field results for American international sports. The last time the U.S. missed the World Cup was in 1986. For the first time in thirty-two years, U.S. citizens will be denied a chance to revel in patriotic support for their home squad in one of the few major sports that the United States can be considered true underdogs.
The U.S. may have also lost some nationalistic momentum leading up to the 2018 Olympic winter games. The NHL decided not to allow their league’s players to play for national hockey teams during the 2018 Olympics, thereby drastically reducing the quality of one of the most high-profile winter Olympic events, and largely suppressing another opportunity for U.S. fans to pull for an underdog team. The U.S. government suggested that U.S. Olympic participation was an “open question,” primarily to convey the seriousness of security expectations for U.S. athletes to South Korean hosts. U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley later walked back this statement , but planting this uncertainty may have been an empty threat from the outset, given the obvious opportunity for the United States to shine on a stage from which rival Russia will be mostly barred due to major doping violations.
In some of the saddest sporting news from 2017, the number of former and current U.S. gymnasts charging team doctor Larry Nassar with sexual abuse rose to over one hundred victims. Former CEO of U.S.A. Gymnastics Steve Penny stepped down in March, and major sponsors have dropped their deals with U.S.A. Gymnastics. The intense personal pressure and drive for success are often blamed for discouraging athletes from speaking up, causing coaches and leaders to look the other way, and allowing a culture of abuse to fester. At some level, the pressures of competing for the national organization, and the expectations of success for the U.S. national team, contributed to this culture as well. It is deserved, then, that some of this tragedy should in turn reflect poorly on the use of sport for the purposes of nationalism, and the manifestation of pressure for success applied by the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. government by association.
U.S.A. Gymnastics has stated that positive steps are being taken to change their broken program, and in fact, some steps were taken in several different contexts to better support and protect members of U.S. women’s teams. The women’s national hockey team improved player compensation from $6,000 to at least $70,000 by threatening a boycott of the IIHF World Championships. While failing to achieve equal pay to the U.S. men’s soccer team, the U.S. women’s soccer team received major concessions in a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. soccer, including a major pay increase and improved support off the field in lodging, per diem, and pregnancies.
It is true that 2017 was a unique year in the relationship between U.S. nationalism and sport. Perhaps 2017 will stand as a turning point in the use of sport for nationalistic purposes, in which athletes stood for equality and justice against the pressures of the U.S. government. Sport still largely serves to promote patriotism and national identity in citizens, but the individual voices of athletes have never been louder in the United States. We must hope for the future that nationalistic concerns do not drown out those voices that seek to make both sport, and the nation, better.
Sam Winemiller is a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Associate at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville studying Socio-Cultural Sport Studies. Sam’s research focuses include sport history and identity in sport, particularly in the contexts of talent identification and alternative or unique sporting communities. He is a fan of sport strategy, good music, fantasy novels, and the outdoors. Please tweet Sam @sammywines, or reach out via email: email@example.com.
 E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth and Reality (Cambridge, UK), 1990, 143