The Sports Arena Has Always Been A Venue For Protest – Forbes

DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 24: Members of the Detroit Lions take a knee during the playing of the national anthem prior to the start of the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field on September 24, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Attention was focused firmly on the NFL yesterday, as players, coaches and teams responded to President Trump’s comments about NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. While many have claimed that politics have no place in sports, the use of athletic competitions to protest current events is nothing new. Both theaters and sporting arenas have always been a venue where the people could be heard and discontent with the status quo registered.

In 56 BCE, Marcus Tullius Cicero commented on the places where the people might communicate with their politicians: “In truth, there are three places in which the opinion and inclination of the Roman people may be ascertained in the greatest degree; at speeches, the assemblies and at the games and exhibitions of gladiators.” The late Roman Republic of the first century BCE had already seen a number of thespians and athletes use their forum for political ends.

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Actors prepare for a performance in the theater. Mosaic originally from Pompeii and now in Naples and the National Archaeological Museum. 

According to Cicero, an actor named Diphilus critiqued Pompey the Great when the triumvir attended a performance in the theater in 59 BCE by making a pun in Latin that played off his title: ‘nostra miseria tu es magnus’ (you are Great because of our misery). Just like the unscripted lines delivered to Mike Pence at a performance of Hamilton back in November, actors and playwrights have frequently used the social arena of the theater to speak directly to politicians.

Sports arenas such as the amphitheater or the circus (the venue for chariot racing alternately called a hippodrome in the East) were also political spaces. As I have discussed before, sporting events were themselves a potent visualization of the social hierarchy that existed within a society. Even today, luxury skyboxes set the wealthy off from the masses behind glass, just as emperors had their own luxury boxes in antiquity. One need only scan a professional sporting event from the first row up to the nosebleed section in order to see how wealth is distributed within the United States.

Unlike opera and most theatrical events today, sporting events are unique in that they bring both the wealthy and the less fortunate together in one venue; not an easy thing to do. In antiquity, this meant physically within one space such as the Colosseum or the Circus Maximus, where admission was often free and provided by wealthy patrons or the emperor himself. Today, the rise of broadcast television and internet streaming mean sports are similarly accessible to billions that can’t afford a pricey seat on the fifty-yard line.

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Engraving by Onofrio Panvinio of the hippodrome at Constantinople in 1600.

The hippodrome’s track for chariot racing was the heart of the late Roman city. It was also integral to a city’s identity. Just reflect on how important NASCAR is to the city of Charlotte, North Carolina today. During the course of the fifth century CE in particular, the various factions of charioteer teams–the Greens, the Blues, the Whites and the Reds–began to become more potent and tied to both political and economic identities. Whole neighborhoods within major cities such as Constantinople were divided based on allegiance to one’s faction, and in sixth century Constantinople, most were either fans of the Blues or the Greens.

The late Alan Cameron recorded a history of these circus factions in the Roman hippodrome in Circus factions : blues and greens at Rome and Byzantium. Within this book, Cameron discussed how theaters, amphitheaters and the hippodromes served as a flashpoint for communication between the people and the emperor. Under the reign of Justinian (r.527-565), the circus factions had become powerful social figures. Victorious charioteers had huge followings. As popular discontent, likely over the heavy tax policies of the emperor, increased within the city, things came to a head in the year 532.

A number of riots within the city had resulted in the arrest of ringleaders who were then placed in prison. A botched execution had resulted in two men escaping and finding sanctuary in a church that was then placed under guard. One of these men was a fan of the Blues and the other of the Greens. Two charioteer leaders, one from each leading faction, then decided to ask the emperor for leniency for these men during the chariot games on January 13, 532. Justinian turned a deaf ear for 22 of the planned 24 races. When their pleas to the emperor went unanswered, there was loud chanting of “Long live the merciful Blues and Greens!” as widespread rioting broke out. The watchword at the time was allegedly “Nika! Nika!” (Conquer! Conquer!). 

Carole Raddato

Mosaic depicting a charioteer and horse from each of the four factions (Red, White, Blue, and Green), 3rd century AD, Palazzo Massimo all Terme, Rome.

As the historian Procopius noted, disdain for the emperor brought together the two rival factions as one: “At this time the officers of the city administration in Byzantium were leading away to death some of the rioters. But the members of the two factions conspiring together and declaring a truce with each other, seized the prisoners and then straightway entered the prison and released all those who were in confinement there. . . . Fire was applied to the city as if it had fallen under the hand of an enemy.” This is not all that different from Lebron James’ defense of rival Steph Curry over the weekend, in response to Trump revoking an alleged invitation to the White House. Rival teams have long been brought together by a joint political cause. 

Ultimately, the so-called Nika Riots lasted for six days and tore the city of Constantinople apart. It would end with the slaughter by the emperor of as many as 30,000 citizens. One wonders if this all could have been avoided simply by Justinian using a little bit of diplomacy with the circus factions and their fans, and listening to their concerns in earnest.

The lesson to take from the riots are not that violence is effective–it is not and never will be–but rather that politics and sports have never been mutually exclusive spheres. They have always been intimately connected. Athletic competition as well as theatrical events remain direct lines for speaking to politicians through the proxy of the athlete or the actor because fame provides these individuals with unique voices that can speak to the discontent of millions who feel unheard, invisible and oppressed.   

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