February 25, 2019

The Political Power of Sports and Music

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

As the NFL settled with Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, who had claimed that the league colluded against them, I’ve marveled at how sports have been such a political lightening rod. (Peter Kaufman wrote about it for Everyday Sociology in 2016.)

In the opening weeks of the 2017 football season, NFL players, coaches, owners, commentators, and fans expressed outrage over the president’s insistence that players shouldn’t protest the national anthem. While Colin Kaepernick’s protests over police brutality were the start, momentum brewed. (An important point: U.S. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe was the first white professional athlete to join him by kneeling during the national anthem last year.)

Individual athletes can wield considerable symbolic power, from John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Muhammad Ali. NFL players are largely acting on their own. (Peter Kaufman wrote about this a few years ago as well.) The NFL as a league, however, has much greater power and, as an organization, it has been covertly political: from dealing with issues of domestic violence backstage to agreeing to have the U.S. military stage patriotic displays before games. Similarly, NBA players voicing their support for Black Lives Matter has been effective, but when the NBA as a league decided to move its All-Star game to New Orleans to target funding for flood relief and rebuilding efforts in the city it infused $45 million into the city’s economy.

The NCAA as a league, on the other hand, has been much more overtly political. The NCAA pulled its basketball tournament out of North Carolina—a state that takes its basketball very seriously—in response to House Bill 2, or the “bathroom bill” that would require people to use a bathroom that corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth. The NCAA had just lifted its 13-year ban of neighboring South Carolina, due to that state’s insistence on flying the Confederate flag over its statehouse. Following suit, the NBA moved its 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte to New Orleans, a list of musicians refused to make tour stops in the state, and several businesses (including PayPal and Deutsche Bank) halted planned expansion in North Carolina.

The collective weight of these boycotts had their desired effect. Politifact notes that HB2 cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars. And the Raleigh News & Observer’s assessment was that the state legislature’s bill was governor McCrory’s “biggest problem” in his losing bid for governor. The Boston Globe dubbed the NCAA “one of the most politically powerful organizations in the United States” over its move out of North Carolina.

What’s particularly surprising, for me at least, has been how musicians have been much less effective in moving these political debates. Why is that? I suppose a different question is why is it that black musicians, many of whom have been political all along, haven’t received the attention and recognition they deserve? Why isn’t white America listening?

Historically, from Woodstock to Newport Folk to L.A.’s Wattstax, musicians stood at the vanguard of the counterculture and the civil rights movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. And certainly, there are still musicians who are quite political, but they are mostly from the world of folk and politically conscious hip hop. (When political commentator Keith Olbermann tweeted that an anti-Trump freestyle rant by Eminem was the first time he was moved by rap, Questlove from The Roots responded with a 201-song playlist to educate him on hip hop.)

Perhaps football struck a nerve because its fans are very different (socially and economically) than the football players themselves. But just as sports leagues carry more political and economic capital than individual athletes, music festivals can be powerful engines for political change.

Music festivals are intensely popular and, behind the scenes, they connect and bolster the cultural activities of their locales. And cities like New York, Boston, Miami, Dallas, and Houston have a significant economic impact on their regions and the U.S. overall.

Municipalities like Austin aim to distinguish themselves as entertainment hubs and compete with each other to host major events. Festivals, conferences, and sporting events inject tens of millions of dollars into local and state economies, attracting tourists, businesses, and media. And yet, cities are increasingly at odds with state legislatures, particularly in more liberal southern cities within more conservative states. Organizers for major and minor cultural events can leverage their economic impact in more creative cities for wider political gains, increasingly for more left-leaning political causes.

For example: Texas’ Senate Bill 4, legislation designed to strip Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio over their power to self-designate as a sanctuary city, went to court in June. The bill earned an opponent in Austin’s influential South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. In an affidavit, SXSW’s founder says that the bill negatively impacts their business: “We intend to stay and fight discriminatory legislation that hinders civil rights.”

Today, urban music festivals usually funnel some money to non-profits, hosting political causes like voter registration and clean water. Most philanthropy has been politically neutral. For example, the Country Music Association’s CMA Fest directs millions of dollars to Nashville’s music education programs. Other events are more explicit. North Carolina’s Moogfest, a festival celebrating the electronic music, issued its own statement against the state’s “bathroom bill,” and programmed a protest stage.

Festivals and other events should use their power for political gain more often. They can learn from the NCAA.

I noted in my book, Music/City: American Festivals and Placemaking in Austin, Nashville, and Newport, festivals respond to cultural trends and political climates, but they also base their authenticity around strong ties to place. One of my case studies was SXSW, wherein I detailed the festival’s history, and how the fortunes of the city and event are intertwined. It is unsurprising, then, that SXSW dismissed the suggestion by two U.S. senators, Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), to abandon Texas. Swenson was compelled to include a declaration of an intent to stay in Austin as a part of their statement against SB4.

Following through on such threats may prove difficult. Music festivals might be less agile than the NCAA’s and NBA’s events.

 

 

Comments

I read your blog post and this is nice blog post.. thanks for taking the time to share with us. have a nice day

thanks for taking the time to share with us. have a nice day

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