Claiming Williams forum fosters discussion about sports, politics

Forum attendees watched Not Just a Game and discussed its themes. Photo courtesy of The Starting Five.

On Thursday, students and coaches attended a forum in Paresky Auditorium to discuss the intersection of politics, culture and sports.

The forum, hosted by Diane Williams ’02, was held in conjunction with Claiming Williams Day. Attendees first watched a documentary, Dave Zirin’s Not Just a Game: Power, Politics and American Sports. Afterward, a panel of student-athletes and coaches engaged the audience in conversation about the film’s themes and the role of sports at the College.

Panelists included Michael Kidd-Phillips ’18, Kevin Walsh ’17, Caitlin Buckley ’17, Olivia Goodheart ’19 and men’s track and field Head Coach Ethan Barron. Kidd-Phillips and Walsh are members of the football team. Buckley plays ice hockey, and Goodheart runs cross country and track and field.

Assistant Director for Student Athlete Services Jennifer Chuks organized the event. She said she chose Not Just a Game because it “touched on a lot of important topics that can be discussed among members of the community.”

It’s a thought-provoking film that does a really good job at examining the role of politics in sports through looking at the social pressure to keep sports separate from politics,” she said.

Williams, the film’s associate producer, said the documentary “unpacked the social and cultural implications of sports by looking at race, gender and the militarized aspects of football.” In addition, it addressed sports’ intolerance to queer gender identities and the corporate influence that makes activism difficult for professional athletes.

Goodheart said that the film was “an introduction to the idea that sports and politics can’t be separated.” While many sports fans push for a separation of sports and politics, professional sports games are littered with political statements, Kidd-Phillips said. These include patriotic rituals such as the playing of the national anthem and the participation of army veterans in the coin toss.

“Sporting events give the government and the military an opportunity to promote their ideals and their agenda,” he said. “A lot of the times they aren’t talked about, [but] they are political statements.”

However, statements that challenge the status quo are generally not as accepted, according to Williams.

“The dominant ideologies that we have in society are the ones that get reinforced in sports culture,” she said. “It’s only when a group has a non-dominant view that we notice there is something [political] going on.”

For centuries, a dominant belief was that women had no place in athletics. Not Just a Game showed a photo from the 1967 Boston Marathon, in which a woman competed for the first time in the history of the race. In the photo, a male race director is shown trying to physically remove the woman, Kathrine Switzer, from the course. However, some male runners pushed him away, allowing Switzer to continue running. Several panelists commented on the photo’s power and symbolism.

“It resonated with me emblematically, because it represented three positions everybody can hold in these situations: vocal proponent, vocal opposition or tacit supporter,” Barron said.

He also spoke about gender norms in sports and their effects on athletes. “Gender in sport is a big interest of mine,” he said.

“I think it’s harder for women who have to deal with feminine societal norms and the fact that sports are deemed masculine … The socially accepted body types differ for men and women.”

This year’s theme for Claiming Williams Day was moral courage, and the panel discussed examples in which high-profile athletes displayed moral courage. These athletes included LeBron James and the members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team.

For Kidd-Phillips, Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest was especially impressive. During the 2016 NFL season, Kaepernick chose to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Despite backlash from fans and former players, Kaepernick continued his protest, and many other players joined him.

“A lot of people who watch football don’t think much about the Black Lives Matter movement,” Kidd-Phillips said. “[Kaepernick] was showing people that police brutality would not be accepted in the black community and that it is an ongoing issue. It cost him a lot of fans, but it started a fruitful discussion across America.”

Not Just a Game suggested that the corporate structure of sports makes political protest risky for athletes. The business of American sports has become increasingly focused on branding. Professional athletes help teams to sell tickets and sponsors to sell their products.

“Sports produce events that can be easily consumed by fans,” Goodheart said. “They’re meant to discipline bodies into certain behaviors to achieve profits. There are ways to edit out parts of people’s experience and erase gender and racial identity, and people get upset when athletes bring their political and full selves into sports.”

Some players who followed Kaepernick were dropped by their sponsors.

“When you disrupt the status quo, you’re going to find yourself in some trouble,” Kidd-Phillips said. “That’s the way democracy works – you have a freedom, but you have to think about people’s responses to your actions.”

During the discussion, panelists also discussed team cultures at the College. Many of them spoke about the divide between athletes and non-athletes on campus.

“The athlete versus non-athlete issue needs to be addressed,” Barron said. “I’ve seen a lot of athletes with identity struggles here, because they were academics in high school and are seen as jocks now, even though everyone here is really an academic.”

Kidd-Phillips said the split was “upsetting,” since the two groups have much in common. He noted that some students have negative perceptions about some teams on campus, including the football team. When Kidd-Phillips was a first-year, an entrymate told him that he had changed their conception of athletes who play football.

“My mission is not to be that stereotypical football player that the media portrays,” he said.

Goodheart, a member of Anything but Straight in Athletics (ABS), said that team cultures at the College make it difficult for queer athletes to come out. She added that the gender binary of men’s and women’s teams can isolate people with non-binary identities: “Sports culture was never designed to include a queer identity. [There are] so many rigid ideas about masculinity, social structure, gender and sexuality, and those structures are there to discipline people.”

She also raised concerns over the general lack of diversity in athletics at the College.

“Teams are overwhelmingly upper class and white,” she said. “These environments will ultimately be alienating to people that don’t match those narratives.”

While panelists were glad that the forum began conversations, they said there was further work to be done. In addition, some noted that the film did not represent the voices of women in color.

“[The forum] was great, but it was just the start,” Barron said. “I would love to have a discussion or lunch series related to sports and race, gender, socioeconomic class and sexuality at the College.”

“I hope that the conversation doesn’t end and that it continues to proliferate through sports teams on campus,” Goodheart said.

“We’re political whether we want to be or not,” she said. “We need to understand ways in which we can be complicit in reproducing cultures that actively harm other people, and we need to get people started on the path of being critical examiners of their own behavior.”