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Opinion | Why it is impossible to keep politics out of sport?

According to data from Kantar Media, sports programming accounted for $8.47bn in ad sales for the big four US broadcast networks in 2015. That’s 37 per cent of their total advertising revenues.

That comes against a background of advertising dollars being switched into digital media and underscores the power of live sport to consistently attract big audiences in an evermore fragmented media environment.

If a brand wants to sell to a mass market, sport delivers the eyeballs like nothing else. It’s why companies pay megabucks for spots around the Super Bowl, an event that is now routinely used to debut fresh creative work and which has, in the last decade or so, become a combative arena for the ad agencies, as well as competing teams. Money talks and brands’ cash clearly says that sport remains a powerful way of getting their message to the masses.

But brands aren’t the only ones with something to say and it shouldn’t have been any surprise when a number of NFL players and a member of the US women’s soccer team used their sport and the presence of the cameras to make points about racism and police violence in their country.

Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, got the ball rolling by kneeling rather than standing during the National Anthem, which is played ahead of all professional sports events in the US.

It was, in fact, a rather graceful, almost religious gesture that might have been interpreted as acknowledging a more powerful and important authority than the State. But the uproar – particularly as others followed suit – was loud and somewhat predictable, with Presidential candidate Donald Trump suggesting that Kaepernick might like to try another country if the US didn’t cut it for him.

Equally predictably, the protests also brought a fresh outcry from those who consistently tell us that politics and sport should never mix. Given that we’ve just drawn the curtains on the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games – events that were born out of domestic political ambition and nearly collapsed when that political system came close to implosion – the ‘outcryers’ have had a busy time.

Sport is still widely touted in some quarters as an engine for peace, harmony and international concord, but this last year has demonstrated that we still have a way to go before we can really start to think of it in that way. That was illustrated by the reaction to the banning of Russian track and field athletes from the Olympic Games and the entire team for the Paralympics. The bans were thought necessary by some but unjust by many others and inevitably fuelled a belief among some Russians that the world is turning against them.

The point is that it is a little naïve to believe that sport and politics can be kept separate. Politics is more or less hardwired into the very structure of sport.

Sports governing bodies are presided over by men and women who achieve their positions as a result of politics, of making promises, exchanging favours and campaigning hard against opponents. The bigger the organisation, the more intensive and sometimes bitter the campaigning becomes.

Sport also plays to politics and into the hands of politicians in the way that it sells the right to stage its major events. Hosting the Olympic Games, Fifa World Cup and many other major events is pitched as an opportunity for nation-building. That’s political to the core, although sports governing bodies tend to be quick to adopt a distinctly neutral stance when things threaten to go wrong and taxpayers rock up in the streets with banners suggesting their money might be better spent on healthcare or public transport.

The fact is that sport and politics are separate ingredients that sit in the same bowl, and emulsify in response to local and world events. And that’s not about to change anytime soon.

It is not all negative. South Africa’s exclusion from sport was used by the international community as a weapon in the battle to end apartheid and then, through Nelson Mandela’s embrace of the national rugby team, to unite a divided nation.

In England, sport and politics mixed over the Brexit vote, forcing Steve Parish, chairman of London club Crystal Palace, to disassociate himself from a Premier League statement that all 20 clubs supported the Remain (in the European Union) campaign. Parish felt it was inappropriate for the club’s name to be used in relation to an issue that divided its fanbase.

Sport and politics are conjoined both by the interests of the people and institutions who run it, and by the platform it offers to third parties. It is simply not feasible to prise them apart. In effect, they are two sides of the same coin and when the power of politics and sport can be brought together in a common cause, the resultant force should be able to move mountains.

It’s just that political unity itself is a fairly ephemeral concept and sport more often appears to accentuate rather than heal divisions. There are, of course, organisations out there that exist simply to use the power of sport in a positive way, but, too often, they battle against the realities of politics and are hindered in achieving their goals. Can that be changed? Only through politics.

The problem is that the concoction of sport and politics only seems noxious when the mix doesn’t reflect or further an individual’s own beliefs or desires. And as none of us are ever going to agree on everything all the time, we have to accept we’re stuck with that and have to learn to work with it.

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