When professional athletes started kneeling in silent protest during the National Anthem, questions about politics having a place in professional sports followed.
For Anthony Weems it’s not really a question, but rather a reality. He says all sport is inherently political.
The FIU Assistant Professor of Recreation and Sport Management studies a subject many don’t like to tackle — the intersection between sports and culture. His focus is on how important issues like diversity and social justice are expressed in the culture of a professional sports organization, namely at the leadership level by team owners. Weems sees his research as a means to a much larger end, as a way to apply his findings in the real world by impacting changes that benefit real people.
“My work all boils down to the fact that sport is political. That’s the purpose of elite sports, at least, it is political and intentionally political,” Weems said. “It’s really just about whose politics we’re talking about.”
Weems path to studying the politics of sport was rooted in his love of sports. Growing up, he played nearly every sport imaginable. By high school, he dedicated his time to focusing solely on basketball, and was named first team all-district and first team academic all-state in Spring, Texas.
When the time came to choose a college, he had two options — play collegiate basketball or study petroleum engineering.
Both his father and brother were in oil, so Weems opted to follow their path. A year later, his mother passed away. A few months after that, his father was diagnosed with cancer. At only 19, Weems was awakened to the painful fact that life is short. And very precious. He reevaluated his choices and asked himself what he wanted to be spending his time doing. The answer was something with sports.
At Texas A&M, Weems earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in Sport Management and found a network of supportive mentors. Professor and sociologist Joe Feagin and former Distinguished Professor of Higher Education Yvonna Lincoln provided lifechanging guidance that challenged Weems, and helped him realize that doing research and deciding what he wanted to contribute started with a personal journey. It required taking a close look at himself.
“With research, it’s important to understand where you personally fit in the broader conversation. This is really important with topics like diversity, social justice, race and racism — especially because I’m a white man,” Weems said. “I had to ask myself ‘Who am I to be speaking on these topics?’ and ‘What am I speaking about on these topics?’ This led me to focus on whiteness, and white men in power, in particular, because they see the world and navigate it in a particular way that shapes the organizations everyone else is a part of.”
For Weems, it’s a matter of using what power he has to make a positive difference through his research. That research is driven by questions that aren’t always simple and often centered around topics that are polarizing.
Weems’ dissertation focused on NFL ownership and the political economy within the league. Not surprisingly, he found a significant overrepresentation of white men who own teams. More important, though, and surprising to Weems, he also discovered a tight, tangled knot of political and economic networks — from media companies, politicians and nearly every major industry in the workforce.
Because a lot of information is protected in professional sports, Weems isn’t allowed to survey team owners or interview them. Instead, he relies on other, more time-consuming methods like bricolage. Similar to making a collage, Weems collects more readily available materials — records of business partnerships, tax donations, media interviews with team owners, and even league policies that often are created on behalf of the owners. Then, he stitches all of these pieces together and sees how they all insect with race, gender and nationality, to create a larger, more comprehensive picture.
As a researcher at FIU, Weems is digging deeper into more complicated questions like why ownership exists in professional sports in the first place, and the possible social, political and economic effects.
He’ll also use his research as a catalyst for change. To date, he’s helped form the Sporting Justice Collective — a network of scholars, activists and athletes that work toward justice in sport, particularly with an anti-racist focus. He’s also on the board of the anti-racist soccer club, which provides a program or framework for soccer clubs to adopt that allows them to take tangible actions toward being anti-racist that goes beyond issuing a statement.
“I don’t want to just be the academic sitting in the ivory tower talking critically about these issues. I want to engage and find creative ways to disseminate the research,” Weems said. “My first goal, though, is to get people to see when they watch a game on TV — that money is going somewhere political, like political action committees. And it’s happening right before our eyes.”