How Did We Get Woke-letics?

My high school and university years were spent focused largely on one thing: competitive sports. I was a starter on my high school basketball team that won a Toronto area title one year and nearly won another. I played varsity basketball at a Canadian university—think Division II in the US, maybe a tad lower. (As a six-foot-tall midget surrounded by giants I learned how to hold my alcohol if nothing else.) And later in life, I was a competitive curler going to two world championships and a bunch of seniors ones. (This, readers, is much easier to do when you are an ex-pat Canadian, living in New Zealand and then Australia.)

That preface is not meant to spruik my own sporting credentials. They are second-rate, at best. It is to buttress my claim that I have a pretty good insight into the world of competitive sports. I know it. I love it, especially the thrill of pressure-packed competition. But here’s the thing. Once you reach a certain level of competitive sports it becomes plain to nearly anyone that merit is key. One’s ability to deliver—to make the shot or deliver the block or kick the goal—is what matters. It’s not the extent of your parents’ wealth. It’s not your skin color. It’s not your political druthers. More than just about any other aspect of life in a modern democracy, high-level competitive sports are a meritocracy. No good team indulges in affirmative action quotas for players, employing some sort of checklist to make sure you have an Asian, a homosexual, maybe a Jew. None. Want to know why over four-fifths of the NBA players are black? Because they are better players than those who failed to make it. Full stop.

The days of excluding great athletes because of their skin color are long gone. Money in professional sports and the rewards linked to success make everyone a meritocrat. Owners, coaches, and players all concentrate on finding or being the best player available. If your owner or team doesn’t focus solely on that, another’s will. And long term, they’ll win. You won’t. That was always my experience too. When it came to game time, who could deliver was what mattered.

What, then, is the appeal of woke, identity politics to so many of today’s professional athletes, especially in the United States? I mean that as a serious, not rhetorical, question. After all, it is a ruthless meritocratic process over many years that selects the athletes who play in today’s NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and English Premier League, not to mention those who make national teams and qualify for the Olympics. It is a process that hugely rewards long hours of practice, mental toughness, individual responsibility, and a clear understanding that not everyone is born with the same natural abilities so one must work with what he has (and some have a lot more than others). One might even be tempted to think of all this as a hothouse for creating—you know—conservative capitalist individualists who shun group-think, quotas, and the empty gestures of virtue-signalling.

Not so, apparently. Across so much of today’s sporting landscape, the last few years have shown us professional sports leagues and incredibly highly paid sports stars wallowing in bumper sticker moralizing and gestures that are at best empty and at worst malign. Across so much of today’s sporting landscape—from the NFL to women’s soccer to the English national soccer team at the recent Euro competition to the Australian national cricket team and back to the NBA—players “take the knee.” They make unspecified (indeed unspecifiable) demands for “social justice.” They support an organization like Black Lives Matter that on even the most cursory of examinations can be seen to be against the nuclear family, against capitalism, against the police, and even more supportive of the communist regime in Cuba than of its oppressed citizens who recently came out in numbers to protest against that regime. Put differently, BLM implicitly has a higher regard for life in Cuba than in the United States.

I’m betting that deep down a good number of these athletes don’t agree with “taking the knee” or with shunning the yearly visit to the White House. . . . Yet opting to go with the flow seems easier than being brave.

All of this virtue-signalling has really put off people like me, people who love not just playing but also watching top-level sports. In a world of multiple causes for nearly everything, it would nevertheless be a brave and creative person who tried to claim the NBA’s TV ratings these last few years have not been badly affected by this descent into gesture politics. This season’s finals ratings were second-lowest in some four decades, second only to last year’s delayed 2020 finals that went head-to-head with the NFL, and massively down from the Michael Jordan era. No game of this year’s playoffs, the finals included, garnered anywhere near the number of TV watchers that this year’s NCAA college hoops finals scored. And that was between two small colleges, Gonzaga and Baylor, with tiny home markets. Likewise, but not as badly, baseball’s viewership is down. That of the Olympics is way down—thanks, I bet in part, to the US women’s soccer team’s proclivity for “taking the knee.” The list goes on, not quite reaching the nadir of the Academy Awards’ plummeting viewership, but you get the idea.

Turns out that one-sided, identity-politics preaching by highly paid sports stars (whose own professional world wholly shuns affirmative action, group-based quotas, and wallowing in empty gestures) really irks many customers who indirectly pay their salaries by watching. Heck, try to think of a televised top sport that has not been infected by this gesture-driven, in-your-face lecturing. The best I can come up with is golf, which in many ways is the most individualistic and self-reliant big sport there is (not to overlook that it probably has the most openly Republican competitors too). Remember, with golf no one is guaranteed any money at all. Near on half of each week’s field is cut at the halfway point and goes home with no money at all. Meanwhile, a huge chunk of the total tournament dollar prize goes to the winner.

Let’s finish then with some speculations on my part for why this is all so. It could be that these sports stars are ill-informed about politics and social science. They don’t know the data on how many unarmed black Americans are shot each year by the police, or the broader racial statistics surrounding police interactions. They are busy being professional sportsmen and women. They have agents. They are interviewed by sports reporters. They go with the flow.

Tied into that, there could be dollops of what many of us would call cowardice. I’m betting that deep down a good number of these athletes don’t agree with “taking the knee” or with shunning the yearly visit to the White House because its occupant was Donald Trump. (Remember, in a country where statistically men lean Republican more than women, and white men more than black, it is extremely improbable to doubt that the ranks of, say, the NHL or of NFL quarterbacks or of MLB managers do not contain more than a few Republican voters.) Yet opting to go with the flow seems easier than being brave. So they apologize when they don’t really believe they have anything for which to apologize. Just do it (no pun intended) to make all the social media stuff go away.

Then there’s the self-interest angle. Big corporations have never been more woke. They pay a lot of money to many, many sporting stars. Sure, it is bizarre to think that someone could get rich from sponsors by dissing and lambasting the country that made him an uber-wealthy sporting millionaire. But it is what it is. So more than a few of these stars just play the game the corporate wokesters want.

Here’s a last possible cause I’ll moot. For reasons that are somewhat unclear, sports reporters on TV, radio, and the newspapers lean Democrat even more starkly and one-sidedly than their colleagues who cover politics. We know that from the data on political donations. Political journalism is really lopsided and partisan. Double that and more and you have the sporting press. Surprising, isn’t it? Still, the only top sports journalist in the US I know of who came out openly for Donald Trump before the last election was Clay Travis. I’m sure there were others. They just were not working for ESPN and there weren’t many of them, possibly as a result of fearing for one’s job in a social media world where woke warrior athletes get heaped with national praise, while the quiet ones are generally ignored or worse.

At some point, of course, the pendulum swings back. Perhaps going woke really will drive some broke as TVs turn off (a far from certain outcome, alas). Perhaps the meritocratic spirit of sports will reassert itself once the novelty of wokeness wears off. Speaking personally, though, that can’t come soon enough. The list of sports I’m prepared to watch keeps shrinking. I’d prefer to see it growing.