chapter  2
17 Pages

The athlete as citizen: judgement and rhetorical invention in sport

WithMichael L. Butterworth

Introduction Although prevailing wisdom in the USA maintains that sport and politics do not mix, from time to time athletes are invited to comment on political issues or events. For example, players in New York spoke frequently, at times eloquently, about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and their effects on the community and nation. Ten years later, several retrospectives commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11 featured the memories of athletes and coaches. Meanwhile, major national elections also provide moments during which voices from sport are placed in the context of larger national discourses. This was perhapsmost obvious during the 2008 presidential campaign, when the election of the nation’s first African American president held special resonance in high profile sports that are well represented by non-white participants. Yet, in spite of these moments, many observers and fans remain uncomfortable with political speech from their favourite athletes. Writing in the context of the 2006 mid-term elections, ESPN’s Jeff Pearlman worried that sports are so isolating, especially at the professional level, athletes are functionally incapable of being informed about political matters. As he states, ‘when push comes to shove, no population in society is less qualified to guide votes than pro athletes’.1 This is a reflection of the broader sentiment that Dave Zirin argues drives commentary about sport and politics. Athletes are reminded they should simply be grateful for the opportunity to play sports, he insists, so much so that they should just ‘shut up and play’.2