27 September 2017

The power of sport

Joe Saward is a motorsport journalist, primarily covering Formula 1, and has done since 1988. Joe has attended over 500 races and is therefore considered one of a very small group of opinion formers at the very centre of this multi-billion dollar global business.

Perhaps Donald Trump is cleverer than many people think, rather than the windy buffoon he sometimes appears to be. It’s hard to tell. The President’s ridiculous shadow boxing with the poxy North Korean family dictatorship is worrying, but this and his fight with sportsmen across America, over the question of whether they should be allowed to kneel when the national anthem is played, have been filling the media in recent days. To me, a cynic when it comes to politicians, it looks like a man on the run from a pack of dogs, lobbing steaks left and right, in the hope that his pursuers will be diverted.

In the background lurk the dark matters that are keeping Trump awake at night, namely the investigation into the question of whether or not he and his people colluded with Russians during the election campaign. That investigation grinds onwards.

As an observer, I feel that Trump’s whole presidency has been appalling, in terms of what he has done to US prestige, just as Theresa May and her cohorts have done shocking damage to Britain’s influence in the world with Brexit. That is my opinion, to which I have a perfect right, just as others can have a different opinion. The reality is that opinions are so polarised that the only discussion worth having now is a vote. These people were elected by their peoples, so the people must take the blame. As a student of history I know that pendulums swing back and forth and – as long as the systems remain strong – both of these leaders will be gone fairly quickly, and therein lies a certain solace.

Anyway, the point of this column is that Trump is seeing (or using) the power of sport. If you mess with sport, you are in danger of stirring up trouble you don’t need. Sport is best left out of politics (as F1 knows for its experiences in Bahrain), but it is always at the mercy of politicians if they want to politicise it. NASCAR has been dragged into the story because Trump said that he was proud of the stock car series and its supporters because “they won’t put up with disrespecting our country or our flag – they said it loud and clear!”

Richard Petty and Richard Childress both made statements saying they would fire any member of their teams who made such a gesture. They clearly believe that the national anthem is more important than the right to freedom of speech. One can argue that this is disrespecting the rights of the team members, but you don’t have to work for someone who had views you don’t like, so those who feel strongly about this can move teams if they like. But I don’t think it casts the team owners in a good light. However, Petty is 80 and Childress is 72 so one can understand that they are conservative to a large degree. They were born in the world when it was a very different place.

It’s an interesting argument as to whether a symbol such as a flag is more important than basic freedoms, but does such a discussion actually achieve anything?

Dale Earnhardt Jr, the most popular driver in the sport (who is 42) supports freedom of speech, quoting President John F. Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable” and said that he believes all Americans are granted the right to peaceful protests.

NASCAR decided to react after Trump’s remarks: “Sports are a unifying influence in our society, bringing people of differing backgrounds and beliefs together. Our respect for the national anthem has always been a hallmark of our pre-race events. Thanks to the sacrifices of many, we live in a country of unparalleled freedoms and countless liberties, including the right to peacefully express one’s opinion.”

In other words, we respect the flag but allow for protests.

The other thing, which Trump does not seem to understand, is that most Americans respect what their flag stands for and they support what America is. What they don’t support is him.

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