Sports and politics: How Beyoncé stole the Super Bowl halftime show
It wasn’t just Beyoncé’s performance that stole the Super Bowl halftime show away from Coldplay. It was the political message she delivered, including references to everything from police brutality to standards of beauty.
While many welcomed the act as a rallying cry to social awareness, there were others, like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who took offence at what he interpreted to be a call for violence against the police.
While the controversy continues, writer Jelena Damjanovic spoke to Assistant Professor Simon Darnell of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education about the mix of sport and politics and its potential to effect change.
Darnell specializes in social movements and activism in sport, with a particular focus on sport for development and peace.
How well do sports and politics mix?
If the question is “do sports and politics mix?” then the answer is a resounding yes. Governments have long used sport to build consent for their ideologies, their policies or to build prestige domestically or internationally. I think one only needs to look at the celebratory relationship between sports, nationalism and the military as a recurring example of politics in sport.
At the same time, citizens have often looked to sport as a way to call attention to injustice or the need for social or political change. John Carlos and Tommie Smith and the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics [pictured at right, image courtesy Hulton Archive/Getty Images] is probably the most famous example of this (and Beyonce’s performance made reference to it).
By contrast, the question of how well sports and politics mix likely depends on your point of view and your social station. I would say that criticism of “politicizing” sport or the desire to keep sport free of politics is most often levied by those who have the most to gain from maintaining the political status quo.
Is it unusual for a sports event to be used to promote a political agenda?
I don’t think it’s unusual for sports events to carry a political message or be connected to a political agenda. What is different about this year’s Super Bowl is that the NFL and its partners have often been the ones to control the political narrative and it seems this year that a star of Beyoncé’s calibre was able to claim some agency over the message.
Is it a sign of the changing times that Beyoncé can sing about police brutality and Coldplay about marriage equality during the halftime show?
I think it is, to a degree. The 1980s and 90s saw a general lack of political engagement by the world’s biggest sports stars. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley famously separated themselves from politics. But it seems now that we are faced with such significant social and political issues – around issues of race, gender and inequality – that it is increasingly difficult for the world of sport to be insulated from such politics.
Two other issues are significant. One is that corporate spectator sports, particularly the NFL, are bigger than they have ever been in terms of revenue and audiences, which means that they’re increasingly going to present an attractive platform for those who wish to start a political discussion or put forth a particular message. Another is that stars and celebrities like Beyoncé and Jay-Z now enjoy a level of power and control that is fairly unprecedented. One could make the argument that the Super Bowl needed Beyoncé more than vice versa. And moguls like Jay-Z now own nearly the entire means of media production and consumption. I would say this gives them an opportunity and a platform to take a political stance that entertainers and athletes have not had before.
What do you think the impact of this performance could be on the viewers, sport event organizers and the authorities?
As for the impact of these kinds of events on audiences and citizens, that is always difficult to assess and even more difficult to measure. I’m sure there are some who are feeling that politics unnecessarily encroached into their football experience at this year’s Super Bowl. But I think, and I hope, that the larger message is that movements like Black Lives Matter are not simply reflective of niche politics. Rather these are the issues of our time and they affect all of us. Being sports fans doesn’t afford us a space to ignore them.