Debate Debrief: Does Protest Have a Place in Sport?

The omnipresence of sports in American culture cannot be contested. On any given week, multitudes gather to closely watch, fiercely argue over, and ecstatically celebrate the results of an hours-long event with its own language, laws, and officiants. It can be as small as Little League Baseball or as large as the Super Bowl. Regardless of the scale, though, participation and attendance are almost always guaranteed.  

At NYU, we are somewhat disconnected from the pageantry of homecoming and the tension of team rivalry due to our absence of a school football team – but we are outliers.  In the overall collegiate sphere, institutions rely heavily on sports mania and the revenue it brings them. Going into the national leagues, the stakes are even higher. Organizations like the NFL and the NBA carry tremendous financial and cultural clout.

As a result, the stadium has become highly politicized. Patriotism is so ingrained in the framework of the game that we no longer bat an eye at bold displays of national pride or military might. Yet, exercising civil liberties in the form of protest is not as readily accepted as a military flyover. When quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to protest the treatment of African-Americans and other minority groups in the US by kneeling for the National Anthem, he was met with condemnation. Such reactions force people to consider which political displays are deemed “acceptable” in sports and which are not. They have also lead some to contemplate whether politics ought to have a presence on the field, in the stands, or inside the locker room.

“You may not like the message, you may not like the messenger, but the place you think of as “sport" – the economic and media behemoth – is exactly the right place for protest speech.” Professor David Hollander

In his opening speech for the proposition, NYU Professor David Hollander reminded us of the sheer power held by athletes and the associations they belong to. Not only did he assert that political protest should be allowed in sport, but also that the athletic arena is the ideal place for it to occur.

Arguing alongside Professor Hollander was Mireyah Davis (CAS ‘21). A student-athlete, Davis passionately reminded the audience of the socio-political issues that lie at the core of professional sports. What are the implications of telling protestors where, when, and how they ought to protest? In the case of national football, where most players are African-American and viewers predominantly white, we especially cannot ignore the racial dynamics that some would say necessitate confrontation.

“Protest does not have a place in sport because sports are inherently patriotic escapes from politics.” Cameron Fachman

Presenting the case for the opposition were Cameron Fachman (CAS ‘20) and Hemant Sharma (CAS ‘19). Fachman conducted the initial presentation, asserting that although the reasons for the current NFL protests are important, the setting they occur in is counterproductive.  The playing field is so poor of a political platform that it distorts and trivializes the intentions of those who try to use it to as a means for social change. If the arena offers no course for effective change, is protesting within its cultural confines worth it?

By the end of the debate, a majority of audience members came to the conclusion that it was, indeed, worth it.  83% of attendants concluded that protest did belong in sport, 14% said it did not, and 3.4% remained undecided. However, the opposition was able to sway a greater percentage of opinions over the course of the evening. The pre-debate poll revealed 80% favoring the proposition, 6.7% favoring the opposition, and 13% undecided.