The Insidious Logic of 'Stick to Sports'

The 150-year-old marketing strategy casts professional athletics as an escape from, rather than a part of, American corporate culture.

Buffalo Bills players take a knee
Jeffrey T. Barnes / AP

When Donald Trump spoke recently against the NFL players who have been kneeling during the national anthem, he was embracing a well-established tradition of opposition to the civil-rights protests of black athletes. During the 1960s, white sportswriters, politicians, and fans widely demanded that athlete-activists like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and John Carlos “stick to sports.” Though the current generation of sportswriters has a broader range of perspectives on this subject, there are still politicians, commentators, and fans who criticize contemporary black athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James for stating their opinions on topics beyond sports.

Trump’s “stick to sports” message also invokes a conservative argument that predates the civil-rights movement, one that focuses as much on preserving a national system of economic and social inequality as it does on maintaining white supremacy. This argument dates back to the emergence of organized sports as a commercial activity in the mid-19th-century United States. It presents sports as increasingly important to the national culture but nevertheless distinct from the rest of Americans’ economic, religious, and political lives.

This shunting of sports to the side of “real life” has numerous implications, most of which reinforce the cultural status quo in American society. It has led to the characterization of sporting events as a kind of social safety valve through which fans can vent their frustrations in a supposedly contained and harmless manner. Such compartmentalization has also denigrated professional sports as work that is not to be taken seriously by respectable citizens. The integration of this idea into American media over the past century and a half has created tremendous financial and political benefits for the nation’s sports industries and their ancillary businesses, while diminishing the moral and political credibility of celebrity athletes and the fans who support them.

Professionalization of sports mostly began in the U.S. after the Civil War. As sports expanded from a leisure activity into its own industry, its growth was hampered by Americans’ traditional suspicions of corruption in entertainment businesses. An 1877 gambling scandal in baseball’s brand-new National League affirmed these public anxieties. In response, teams gradually developed new marketing strategies to justify the civic benefits of their businesses. Local newspapers partnered with their city’s teams to promote the democratizing potential of professional sports: the benefits of what historians Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills have described as “a very good cross section of the American population” intermingling in the stands.

This message doesn’t appear to have resonated with readers, because soon the press progressed to an argument that focused on sports’ value as an instrument for relieving the frustrations of its spectators. (By 1887, for instance, The New York Times was presenting the concept of baseball as a release for the social pressures of industrial society.) As the reporter H. Addington Bruce later put it in his 1913 article “Baseball and the National Life” for The Outlook:

Baseball, then, from the spectator’s standpoint, is to be regarded as a means of catharsis … a harmless outlet for pent-up emotions, which unless thus gaining expression, might discharge themselves in a dangerous way.

From this perspective, the game became less a means of integrating people into corporate America than a venue for escaping from it.

This message aligned with the interests of the nation’s elite families and educational institutions, which were simultaneously promoting the importance of a culture of amateurism that divorced sports from business. Professional athletics became taboo in these communities. In 1893, Walter Camp, a Yale graduate and the nation’s leading popularizer of football, warned:

A gentleman never competes for money, directly or indirectly. Make no mistake about this. No matter how winding the road may be that eventually brings the sovereign into the pocket, it is the price of what should be dearer to you than anything else—your honor.

Promoting sports as distinct from—and even as an antidote to—work benefitted owners of professional sports teams in a variety of ways. It freed them to exploit their employees on the basis of disreputability; since most Americans did not consider playing games real work, those who chose to earn a living in that way were widely viewed as inherently unworthy. In 1879, the National League introduced the reserve clause, which allowed teams to retain their rights to a player even after his contract expired, unilaterally terminate his contract, or assign him to another team without his consent. The League justified this unprecedented degree of control over its labor force as a way to protect the game from the dissolute habits of its players.

The next year, owners published an “Address to the Players,” which further instituted a series of fines for games missed due to injuries, “drunkenness or bummerism,” and proclaimed that “earnest, deserving” men would be duly rewarded, while “the player of morally weak tendencies” would be surrounded by “wholesome restraints.” Players who opposed these policies were either forced to submit or evicted from the game, and earned little sympathy from fans. In part, this lack of support occurred because prevailing views about professional athletes had led customers to believe that the players, who actually tended to come from families of skilled laborers at the upper levels of the working classes, were members of the lowest ranks of white society.

The widespread perception of professional sport as a game rather than a business also enabled Major League Baseball owners to procure unique legal protections for their financial interests. In its 1922 decision Federal Baseball Club v. National League, the Supreme Court determined that restrictions imposed by Congress in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act did not apply to professional baseball. In his majority opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that this multimillion-dollar business was not interstate commerce, and indeed “would not be called trade of commerce [of any kind] in the commonly accepted use of those words.” This decision remains in effect nearly a century later, allowing the league to control player movement and franchise locations to an extent unmatched in any other contemporary American business.

Developments over the last half-century, particularly the rise of free agency, have mitigated the power of team owners. Yet the cultural authority of this 150-year-old marketing strategy proclaiming sports as an escape from rather than a part of U.S. corporate culture remains largely intact. Fans perceive professional athletes as overpaid—a claim that many economists dispute—but hardly flinch when owners extract public funding to replace perfectly functional stadiums with new facilities. They criticize player protests that bring politics into sporting arenas but say little when professional sports teams take money from the Department of Defense to produce lavishly patriotic pregame ceremonies.

Such disparate standards for judging the behaviors of players and management are a legacy of the way sports has long been viewed in this country. Much of the support for Trump’s diatribes against NFL and NBA players is similarly grounded in a pattern of marketing spin about the place of sports in American society that continues to have powerful economic and social ramifications. Trump’s message of “stick to sports” is racialized because it seeks to reinforce a systemic belief that the voices of predominantly white politicians have more inherent value that those of athletes of color. It is also a message of economic elitism, perpetuating the corporate arrogance of Gilded Age sports executives who deliberately embedded presumptions of their moral superiority over their players into the very structure of their industry. Though the recent backlash against the NFL may seem like a threat to that message, past events suggest that these ideas are deeply ingrained enough in American culture to ensure that players, rather than management, will continue to bear the brunt of the public’s animosity.