The United States is a political ground of polarizing chaos that often feels like watching a circus performance. And certainly not an elegant Cirque du Soleil show, but an exhausting display of ideological gymnastics that is insufferable to watch.
After five minutes of the candidates shouting over each other in the initial presidential debate, one might deduce that an official from the Serie B football league would be more effective than the moderator (no disrespect to Italian footballers).
It’s clear that the imaginary lines separating politics and sports have all but disintegrated. Donald Trump has invoked the importance of sport during his time in office, rebuking athletes who have kneeled during the anthem to support campaigns against anti-Blackness and police brutality.
Athletes and electoral mobilization have always been connected in the American political scene; women’s suffrage in the U.S. has been affected by sports and women.
Historically, athletes in the margins have been outspoken. Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali wadded into the complex world of political commentary. Following their examples, more and more athletes have spoken up and spoken out.
Athlete activism in the political sphere has taken a central role in this U.S. election, and women are starting at centre court.
WNBA players have been incredibly vocal about league-wide initiatives on racial justice, LGBTIQ rights, and pay equity.
Players have been actively supporting the candidate running in this election against Atlanta Dream co-owner, Kelly Loeffler, a Republican Senator from Georgia and an ardent supporter of Trump. In a declaration of political support, many WNBA players mobilized against Loeffler and wore T-shirts supporting her opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Dr. Amira Rose Davis, assistant professor of History, African American Studies, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University and co-host of the Burn It All Down podcast, has called this “unprecedented.”
In an interview with Sports Illustrated Dr. Davis remarked: “Certainly you had times where individual athletes or what seems like a considerable amount of athletes from a certain team or a certain league being in political alliance, but I think what we’re seeing with the WNBA and Kelly Loeffler is very different because it has been very coordinated and it’s been strategic.”
The WNBA also released a video encouraging eligible voters to get educated and get involved at every level of elections: local, state and federal. WNBA.com has information for election information and civic engagement on their website.
There are athletes who have gone on record to state they would not engage in the political process. In 2016, tennis legend Serena Williams declared she would not be voting for Trump or “anyone else” including his then-opponent Hillary Clinton. Although Williams has advocated for Black women’s maternal health, racial justice, and pay equity, she admits she does not vote. Williams cited her religion as the main reason – she is Jehovah’s Witness.
But 2020 US Open winner and Nike athlete Naomi Osaka was recently featured in a video alongside LeBron James available on Nike’s website.
In September, while Osaka was on her way to claiming her second US Open title, she wore seven different masks recognizing the victims of violent racism. The day that she won the tournament, she wore a face mask with the name of Tamir Rice on it. Rice was 12 years old when he was shot and killed by police in 2014. Her views on politics and policy are not divorced from her competition.
There are many examples of women in sports being active in areas of politics – particularly now. The rise of female athletes to the political forefront has not only been in endorsing candidates, but also supporting voter registration and political participation.
U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe has been actively encouraging Americans to get involved in the political discourse. Over the summer, Rapinoe created an HBO special about politics called 'Seeing America with Megan Rapinoe.'
“I’m trying to break it down for people and make it a little more relatable and then get people energized in the civic process, and getting involved in just being more active in their communities, also for themselves," she told comedian Jimmy Fallon.
Making politics “cool” is definitely one way to encourage youth and first-time voters to get out and cast their ballots. Preliminary reports of voter turnout data shows that first- time voters are at high despite allegations of intentional barriers created to render the process needlessly complicated.
Twenty-year-old Olympic gold-medal gymnast Laurie Hernandez voted as soon as she was eligible. The 19th Amendment was passed 100 years ago and permitted women to vote. But Black women and minority women (such as those from Latinx communities) were not until the Voting Rights Acts defeated Jim Crow law that continued to discriminate against racialized and ethnic Americans.
Hernandez is aware of the history and feels compelled to act.
"For women, and especially women of colour, we didn’t have the right [to vote] in the first place,” she said. “We had to fight for it.”
American tennis legend Billie Jean King has been tweeting about the importance of voting. A longtime advocate of political participation, King has been so explicit as to remind voters to remember the names of Black victims George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as they cast their decisions.
There is a plethora of ways to get involved in the political process, and in civic and community engagement. Los Angeles Sparks player Chiney Ogwumike publicly announced last week that she will be working the polls in her hometown of Houston on election day.
Female athletes sharing information on social media, encouraging education and mobilization, is a testament to their influence as leaders on and off the playing field. As athletes continue their roles as ambassadors of sport, and as full participants in the citizenry, the ebb and flows of politics in the U.S. will only lessen the spaces in which female athletes don’t power forward in their passion and politicking.
Shireen Ahmed is a writer, TEDx Speaker, and award-winning sports activist who focuses on Muslim women, and the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast. She lives in the Greater Toronto Area with her children and her cat.