The Forgotten Origins of Politics in Sports

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Kenneth Cohen is curator of American culture at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and the author of They Will Have Their Game: Sporting Culture and the Making of the Early American Republic. Follow him on Twitter.

In 1832, horse racing was by far America’s most popular spectator sport. So when horses named Andrew Jackson and Nullifier appeared at the same racetrack in Richmond, Virginia, thousands of people saw their sporting and political interests overlap. The horses’ names reflected the most divisive political debate of the year, a constitutional crisis over “nullification.” At issue was whether the state of South Carolina could refuse to abide by a federal import tax backed by President Andrew Jackson. The situation was so serious that Vice President John C. Calhoun soon resigned his post and returned home to South Carolina to help mobilize troops in anticipation of a federal invasion. On the racetrack, at least, Jackson won and Nullifier lost.

Whatever you might think about President Trump’s recent crusade against activist athletes, the idea that sports should be divorced from politics is a relatively new one. We can scarcely imagine a football game now between, say, the Tax Cutters and the Bernie Sandersites or an NBA matchup featuring the Golden State Liberals and the Indiana Conservatives. Yet explicitly political sports were the norm in American life for the nation’s first 125 years. At least two other competitive racehorses carried Jackson’s name in 1832, and past races had featured horses named for all sorts of politicians and parties, such as when “Anti-Democrat” and “Little Democrat” graced the same track in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the first decade of the 1800s. Jackson himself once pitted his fighting cocks against those of a rival political faction as part of a July Fourth celebration outside Nashville, Tennessee.

The current debate over sports and politics has largely ignored this early history. Black American athletes were not the first to politicize sports when they made it a stage for protest during the 20th century. In fact, white men had used sports to rally political support since before the American Revolution. It was only in the early 1900s—when black athletes threatened to harness this tradition—that divisive politics were stripped from American sports.

As early as the 1750s, candidates used the popularity of sporting contests to mobilize voters. We like to think of the founding generation as model citizens, but eligible voter turnout was frequently at or below current levels, both before and immediately after the American Revolution. As a result, George Washington supplied alcohol to election parties where all sorts of games were common, and Thomas Jefferson curried favor by sponsoring shooting contests. When Charleston, South Carolina’s artisans wanted to oust wealthy merchants and planters from their local assembly in 1768, they organized their own horse races so that the elite Jockey Club no longer had a monopoly on the sport’s political influence. Efforts to mobilize voters through sport sometimes proved explosive. A 1770 cockfight between Revolutionary patriot Timothy Matlack of Philadelphia and a Loyalist New Yorker, James DeLancey, ended in a brawl that carried more political overtones than today’s Phillies-Mets melees.

Politicians used the competition and aggression at the heart of sports to appeal to the manliness of voters. Back then, it was mostly men who sought camaraderie and an opportunity to prove themselves through sporting competition. As an issue of the New-Yorker magazine put it in 1838, not participating in sports had social costs because “a refusal to do so subjects you to the taunts and jeers of those around.” Not coincidentally, of course, voting and office holding were largely restricted to white men during this period. By linking the manliness of sports to politics, candidates urged their fellow citizens to join the political fray for the same reason they needed to follow sports: to prove their place in society by picking a side in a heated competition. White men asserted their status not just by voting and naming racehorses after candidates but by betting on elections and brawling at the polls on an unprecedented scale, turning politics into what one commentator called “Sport for Grown Children.” ...

Read entire article at Slate

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