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The vilification of Muslims in world sport

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OPINION by Khaled A Beydoun – On August 25, ESPN Major League Baseball (MLB) analyst Curt Schilling, a former player himself, issued a tweet that compared “Muslim extremists” to “Nazis”. The tweet inserted the vilification of Muslims into the world of sport.

“The math is staggering when you get to true #’s,” wrote Schilling, in a tweet appending a meme that held that “5-10 percent of Muslims are extremists” compared to “7 percent of Germans were Nazis” (circa World War II). The meme featured Adolph Hitler, no less, but lacked any source for the statistics about Muslim extremists.
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Schilling’s tweet symbolised far more than merely one commentator’s opinion. But rather, a line of politics that is infused into the branding and marketing of US sport: A hawkish patriotism that cheers on US military might and hegemony as the home team, and the day’s nemesis – Islam and Muslims – as the hated rival.

‘Sport is apolitical’

The world of sport is romanticised as an escape from reality. In fact, in the US, it functions as the greatest escape. A space where politics and activism are not only cast as “irrelevant” and “foreign”, but considered to be “out of bounds”. This myth is aggressively marketed by the most prominent sport leagues in the US (and Europe) and is peddled to sterilise franchises, athletes, and officials from taking political stands that would threaten their brands.

While carefully constructed and strategically promoted, this myth is frequently interrupted – and exposed – by sport figures that use their athletic platform as a political podium – for good and bad, progressive or reactionary politics. The world of sport has long been, and remains, a space where politics – and indeed racism and bigotry – looms strong.

Mandated colour lines, sport franchises using taxpayer funds to build state-of-the-art stadiums and arenas named after corporations and private prisons – evidence that sport is acutely political. The myth, functionally, has been leveraged to filter political viewpoints that jeopardise brands and bottom lines, and greenlight political machinations that advance them.

Politicising sport

During his iconic run as heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali dazzled political audiences as frequently as he did boxing crowds. Shortly after defeating Sonny Liston, Ali joined the Nation of Islam – drawing the intersectional ire of white Americans that detested Islam and the new champion’s “unforgivable” blackness.

Ali, a maestro in the ring and behind the microphone, used his heavyweight reign as a potent political dais. His barrage against white supremacy was unapologetic, his celebration of blackness unabashed, and his promotion of Islam as relentless as the series of punches he delivered to Joe Frazier, Oscar Bonavena, or George Foreman during the “Rumble in the Jungle”. At the apex of the Civil Rights era, Ali masterfully demonstrated how sport and politics overlap, but more critically, how professional athletes can be mobilised and manoeuvred to have immense political impact.

Prominent commentators, most notably Dave Zirin, have lamented the decline of progressive activism within modern sport. A range of voices, particularly on major sport stations, including ESPN, argue that politics has no room in sport.

These observations highlight a dangerous intersection in modern sport: the institutional suppression of progressive political activism, overlapped by the myth of sport as apolitical that is, in fact, anything but.

Politics and sport today are based on a marketing that highlights military might and US hegemony. Baselines that, within today’s geopolitical moment, are inextricably tied to the framing of Islam and Muslim bodies as foe.

Military and the sport arena

Fighter jets flying atop football stadiums, US military advertisements filling up airtime between baseball innings, military recruiters eyeing young men and women walking out of basketball arenas, the US Department of Defense paying NFL franchises millions of dollars to honour one of its soldiers on any given Sunday.

In the US today, military might is a consistent and ubiquitous part of every major sporting event. One cannot attend or watch an athletic event without absorbing countless images of war and symbols of US hegemony.

Military symbols and their concomitant messages advance the brand and bottom line of professional sport. Furthermore, they feed a culture of xenophobia and bloodthirsty patriotism that is already ripe in stadium stands and arena bleachers.

Therefore, it was no surprise that thousands of sports fans rushed to defend Schilling – and echoed his tweet – evidencing: first, that the world of sport is not insulated from the Islamophobia psychosis that surrounds it; and second, militarised marketing in sport is integrating and intensifying Islamophobia within its bounds. Therefore, Schilling’s statement did not come from left field.

Racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia have been staples within European football for a long time. The latter, illustrated by Schilling’s statement and the strategy of militarised marketing and culture that spawned it, signals the rise of Islamophobia within the field of US sport.

While ESPN reprimanded Schilling for his statement, the graver concern is the underlying militarisation of sports marketing – in short, financial and branding structures – that seed and spur Islamophobic attitudes. We should be less concerned with Schilling the pitcher of Islamophobia, and draw our attention on the NFL, NBA and MLB as pitchmen.

For the millions of Muslims who consume and love US sport, knowing who to cheer for and differentiating between the home and rival team isn’t easy. Al Jazeera

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law.

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