You can’t take politics out of sports

Mark Schnabel
The Kansan

Reporter: “Do you feel bad about making more money than the president?”

Babe Ruth: “I had a better year than he did.”

“Why can’t they just leave politics out of sports?”

I hear that all the time these days.

And there have always been a lot of politics in sports — dating back before the Romans threw the Christians, Jews and any other ethnic or religious group that were out of favor to the lions in front of thousands of fans at the local coliseum.

Politics controlled baseball from almost its inception.

The “Color Line” started in 1884, which barred players of color from the major leagues. That lasted until 1946.

The first split in baseball came in 1882. The National League prohibited Sunday games and beer from its ball parks. Then came the American Association, which allowed both.

At the time, both players and fans came from two distinct classes — the wealthy elite, who could afford to miss work on a summer’s day by attending a baseball game; and farmers, who didn’t have as much to do in the summer until the crops came in.

Beer also had a connotation being the favored drink of many German and other European immigrants. Baseball towns like Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis were filled with the same immigrants.

By playing on Sundays, working class people could attend games on their only day off.

The AA further contributed to the divide by charging half as much to attend a game (25 cents).

As the labor movement heated up late in the 19th century, more splits arrived with the Union Association and the Players’ League (also known as the Brotherhood League).

The National Football League was born out of socio-political factors.

Pre-NFL pro football was centered in the Great Lakes states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, etc.

Teams again played on Sundays, when both the players and fans had a day off. Many of the teams were sponsored by local employers (Green Bay Packers, Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears). Many of the players were employed by the same companies, with the occasional ringer brought in.

The NFL had a color barrier from 1927 until 1945, despite one of the league’s founders being Native American Jim Thorpe and the league hosting an all-Native American team (the Oorang Indians, based in Marion, Ohio) in 1922 and ’23.

The NBA had a color barrier from its founding until 1947. (Its first nonwhite player was of Japanese origin). Even when the league integrated, the Harlem Globetrotters dictated who could play where (the Globetrotters were the most powerful pro basketball organization at the time).

The NHL didn’t integrate until 1948, and didn’t have a Black player until 1958.

Then there came the Olympics. The games were conceived in politics and have been embroiled in them for its entire history.

The games themselves were founded, in part, because of the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 as a way to promote Greek pride and nationalism.

After several unofficial games, the first modern games were held in Athens in 1896 with 14 nations.

The early athletes were the elite, upper crust of each nation. Some of the early events such as shooting or sailing (and later modern pentathlon) were popular among the European aristocracy, and many of the competitors were junior commissioned officers (who came from the same aristocracy).

The early bans on professionalism were in place to make sure it was the leisure classes who competed. (Thorpe was disqualified as the gold-medal winner of the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon for accepting $2 per game for a semi-pro baseball team (about $55 today).

The 1942 Olympics held in Berlin were all about the politics. It was to show the superiority of Hitler’s Master Race (well, Jesse Owens put a damper on that). The German authorities attempted to ban Black and Jewish athletes, but several nations threatened a boycott.

The 1956 Olympics featured the “Blood in the Water” water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary.

That same year, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary over the Hungarian Uprising. The Hungarian government capitulated to the protesters and even threatened to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.

The USSR feared the Hungarian unrest would spread and sent troops to brutally put down the uprising and reinstate the Communist government.

The Hungarian water polo team took out its anger by kicking, punching and eye gauging the USSR en route to a 4-0 win. A Hungarian player took an elbow to the eye late in the match that forced riot police to clear the mostly pro-Hungarian crowd to protect the Soviet athletes.

To avoid reprisals after the games, several of the Hungarian athletes defected.

In 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute from the awards stand after finishing 1-3 in the 200-meter dash. A Czechoslovakian gymnast bowed her head and turned away from the Soviet anthem in protest of her country’s treatment by the USSR.

In 1972, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation at the Munich Games.

In 1980, 65 nations — including the U.S. — boycotted the Moscow Games over the USSR invasion of Afghanistan.

In 1984, 14 Soviet Bloc nations boycotted in retaliation over the U.S. boycott four years earlier. North Korea and several of its allies boycotted the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

The last Olympics where there was no boycott or a nation under sanctions for anything other than doping (usually for either repressing its own people or invading another country) was Athens in 1996.

Mark Schnabel is the sports editor for the Kansan and can be reached at