Lewis Hamilton has a decision to make
Will he kneel for the anthem before the United States Grand Prix?
“Stick to sports” is stupid, has always been stupid and will always be stupid. It’s not possible to restrict politics to one building in the capital, one part of the newspaper or one part of your mind. Sport is political in the narrow sense that it has rules and rulers and in the broad sense that it’s an essential element of our social fabric, a defining aspect of local and global cultures. Like it or not, escapism is futile.
Formula 1 is as nakedly political in the narrow sense as any sport. Its vast array of rules and regulations are constantly evolving through combative negotiations between teams, manufacturers, sponsors, broadcasters, multiple governing bodies with murky jurisdiction and – in case you weren’t sure about how political all this really is – national governments with money to spend and points to prove. Unfortunately, none of this politicking will have prepared the sport for going off the deep end into America’s Great Culture War.
Lewis Hamilton is really, really good at driving F1 cars, one of the best ever. He will soon be crowned World Champion for a fourth time, and his success has made him rich and famous. He’s a legitimate global superstar. That should be that, but it isn’t. Lewis Hamilton is also black, moreover a black man in a sport almost completely dominated by white men, and that means his actions in Austin, Texas next week will be under the microscope.
We know Lewis has already thought about kneeling during the national anthem before the race. Whether or not he does, it’s going to be a major talking point. Whether or not you think it should be, it will be. Before you wander into the ruckus, think about what all this is.
The most important thing to know is this: the president* of the United States of America has made whether or not you are willing to watch black athletes be black and athletes at the same time a definitive test of a citizen’s bona fides in the Great Culture War. This war, raging for centuries, is for a potentially but not actually great nation’s soul. One side is a disparate, diverse group brought together only by their agreement that the other side is instinctively, doggedly and likely incurably racist, and the other side is instinctively, doggedly and likely incurably racist. (The great Charles P. Pierce has lead the way with always demarking “president” with an asterisk when referring to Trump, a neat way of permanently attaching Russia, Hillary’s victory in votes, Access Hollywood and the rest to this shameful circus. Others tickle his huge, fragile ego by refusing to speak or write his name and instead use “45“.)
Trump has, in his wisdom, called for a boycott of the NFL, called off the NBA championship winning Warriors’ visit to the White House after Steph Curry (who happens to be simultaneously black and the most popular athlete in America) said he didn’t much like what the president* stands for, called athletes disrespectful enough to peacefully protest sons of bitches, and called for them to be fired, and last weekend called up Veep* Mike Pence to tell him to travel across the country to a football game so he could walk out of the stadium in protest – for real: in protest – if any peaceful protests broke out inside the stadium, which he knew they would because they currently do before every single game. All this within the last month: a real political issue playing out in real time.
What’s it all about? Well, the thing is, the president*’s a racist. Seriously, that’s it, the beginning, the middle and the end. You’re thinking, that’s obvious, this is the guy who launched his political career with Birtherism and launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists. Well, yes, but many, including many who should know better, remain sure there’s more to it than that, that the president* is a shrewd strategist savvily pushing his base’s buttons.
The president* is absolutely, definitely not a shrewd strategist savvily pushing his base’s buttons. He is the base, unable to control his impulse to react just like any other Fox News watching, Breitbart reading racist, and they love him for it, and his buttons and theirs have been well and truly pushed. They were pushed by a disrespectful chap called Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the anthem before football games to protest police brutality and the killing of unarmed black Americans, and then a load of other chaps and chapesses with one thing in common with Colin who started doing the same thing. (In case you hear anyone selling stories about respecting The Troops, remember Humayun Khan and John McCain.)
There’s much more to say about the role race and racism played in Trump’s political journey, and fortunately brilliant people are saying it. But this? This is simple. After years of slamming liberals for being snowflakes too easily triggered by harmless little things like racism, Republicans contrived to elect a snowflake triggered by black and brown.
Kaepernick’s protest has now morphed into something bigger, driven there by a dotty old racist unfit to be at the wheel, for no reason other than he doesn’t like it when people of colour talk back. It’s never been about the troops or the flag but now it’s not about the criminal justice system either, or at least not just that. The president* has positioned himself in direct opposition to black athletes’ rights, and therefore to black rights, and therefore to civil rights. Sport is stationed squarely on this battleground’s front line, whether or not it wants to be there. The question facing every athlete in America is: do you kneel with Colin or stand with Trump?
Motor sport has so far stayed on the wrong side of things by virtue of the fact that NASCAR happens to be simultaneously America’s whitest sport and on Trump’s side. But F1 has Lewis Hamilton, and Lewis Hamilton is black and famous.
Hamilton will be on Trump’s radar whether he likes it or not. If he kneels, he’ll be in his crosshairs.
Oscar Howie (@OscarHowie)