Rob Ford and the Civics of Sports

Rob Ford and the Civics of Sports

Mark Norman

On November 26, an Ontario Superior Court Justice ruled that the mayor of Toronto, Canada’s largest city at a population 2.6 million, had violated the city’s Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and should be removed from office. The decision was the culmination of a bizarre series of events that saw Rob Ford, Toronto’s controversial and colourful mayor since 2010, unceremoniously removed from office pending an appeal in January. Here is an abbreviated version of what transpired, compliments of Paul Maloney of the Toronto Star:

“The judge’s decision to turf Mayor Rob Ford flowed from Ford’s decision, while still a councillor, to solicit donations to his football foundation from city hall lobbyists, clients of lobbyists and a company bidding on city contracts, using letters written on his council stationery. When he was ordered by council, on the advice of city integrity commissioner Janet Leiper, to pay back the $3,150 received from those parties, Ford ignored six requests for proof that he had done so.

Ford had been elected mayor by the time Leiper suggested to council that he be given another opportunity to comply by a set deadline. Instead, on a motion by Ford loyalist Councillor Paul Ainslie, council voted in February to excuse Ford from having to repay the money.

Ford took part in the discussion and later voted in favour of Ainslie’s motion, which passed 22-12, prompting the lawsuit from Toronto resident Paul Magder, a business executive who has strong views on keeping government accountable for its actions. Ford was accused of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act for participating in discussion and then voting on the matter.”

It is appropriate that Ford’s highly publicized involvement in high school football was at the centre of his demise, as he made sport an important part of his political persona and agenda throughout his mayoral reign. From inviting Don Cherry to speak at his mayoral inauguration, to skipping city council meetings to coach football, to missing the annual launch of Pride Week at City Hall to meet with Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke, to his ongoing devotion to the sport of football, sport has been woven throughout the narrative of Ford’s mayorship. In fact, Ford’s reign began (Don Cherry’s inauguration speech) and potentially ended (court ruling relating to improperly solicited football foundation donations) with sport.

Sport, of course, is almost always political, as Left Hook consistently endeavors to demonstrate. Whether it is intimately linked to identity politics of gender, race, class, sexuality, or nationalism, or whether it factors into the agendas of politicians at the municipal, provincial, or federal levels, sport is constantly negotiated and deployed in various political ways. Ford’s two-year mayorship thus offers a fascinating case study of how sport can be used to pursue particular political agendas at a local level and how it can be deployed to represent specific political viewpoints at the expense of alternatives. This essay examines the political implications of four facets of the relationship between Rob Ford and sport: his work with a high school football program for disadvantaged youth; his high profile invitation of Canadian sporting celebrity Don Cherry to speak at his mayoral inauguration; his vision of sport as a means for making Toronto a “world class” city; and how sport and physical activity selectively factor into his vision of how a city should function.

Gridiron charity: Ford’s football foundation and the politics of sport as a tool for social development

The most prominent way in which sport has featured in Ford’s political career is his involvement with high school football both as a coach of the Don Bosco Eagles and through his Rob Ford Football Foundation. Ford has a long history in football, playing at the high school level in Toronto and making the practice squad at Carleton University. In 2001 he started a boys’ football program at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School in Etobicoke, one of Toronto’s inner suburbs, and has served as head coach since that time. Meanwhile, in 2006 Ford launched the Rob Ford Football Foundation. It is actually quite difficult to find information online about the foundation, but according to a Metro report by Jessica Smith it “isn’t a registered charity on its own, but a fund run by the Toronto Community Foundation, which administers hundreds of charitable funds in the city.” The foundation’s primary contribution appears to be distributing funds to high schools that wish to launch football programs, and Smith’s report suggests that over half of its budget may be paid straight out of Ford’s pocket.

Rob Ford, football evangelist, pictured as coach of the Don Bosco Eagles.

Rob Ford, football evangelist, pictured as coach of the Don Bosco Eagles.

Ford has made many grandiose statements about the social impact of his football donations and coaching, suggesting that football programs keep “at-risk” youth out of trouble. For example, in 2009 he stated: “I want to get all kids off the street and I know they can learn things like social skills and working with others that will help them later in life.” Despite the seeming altruistic nature of Ford’s sport work, his volunteer work in football has embroiled him in controversy for many reasons:

  • Ford was criticized for misusing taxpayer money by having political staff help run the Don Bosco team and using municipal resources (cars and phones) for the team.
  • Ford was known to prioritize football coaching over his political duties. In one instance, he missed over two hours of a council meeting on transit issues due to a football practice. Ford’s truancy extended beyond city council meetings: he even skipped court appearances at a libel trial in which he was the defendant in order to coach.
  • The notoriously media-unfriendly mayor was sometimes hounded by City Hall reporters at Don Bosco games and practices, as he refused to speak with many journalists at more appropriate occasions; this led the school’s principal to ban reporters from school property during football practices.
  • And, of course, the conflict of interest case that ultimately saw Ford removed from office stemmed from donations that Ford, while a city councilor, solicited for his football foundation using City of Toronto letterhead.

Clearly Ford’s football foundation and coaching have been controversial. But what are its political implications? Given its stated goals of helping disadvantaged youth in Toronto, Ford’s football foundation can be situated in a widespread movement that is broadly termed “sport for development and peace” (SDP).[1] SDP is a loose term used primarily to refer to sport-based social development programs being implemented in the Global South—Canadian-based organization Right to Play is the most well-known organization in the SDP sector—although it can equally be applied to initiatives taking place in the Global North. SDP, while seemingly well-intentioned in its aim of using sport’s popularity to promote development initiatives such as HIV education or gender equality, has been critiqued by scholars for issues such as its potential paternalistic approach to social development, its lack of accountability and measurement of results, and its inability to take account of local power differentials.

Further, many SDP programs hinge on the assumption of inherent benefits—often termed “character building”—of sport participation. Such organizations are often headed by “sport evangelists” who uncritically accept the supposed positive social outcomes of sport and dismiss its many potential negatives. Ford appears to be a “football evangelist,” given his unwavering assertions that his football work is entirely positive for the social development of the boys who play high school football. There does not appear, from Ford’s statements or information available online, any indication that the program does anything to promote social development beyond offering boys an opportunity to play high school football Furthermore, while some boys undoubtedly do benefit from participation in these football programs, there is no discussion of potential negative consequences for the athletes or non-participants.

Ford’s program, or at least his rhetoric surrounding it, is reminiscent of the “midnight basketball” programs that took off in the US in the 1990s. These programs, which opened up inner city gyms for pickup basketball late at night, were designed to reduce crime by bringing “at-risk” men off the streets and into the gym. The programs were criticized, however, for targeting black males as potential social risks and attempting to instill in them particular notions of citizenship—thus invoking paternalistic approaches to racialized youth and risking further marginalizing black inner city males.[2] Do SDP initiatives such as Ford’s football foundation run similar risks? Ford declared that his “Rob Ford Football Foundation [has] helped I think close to 13, 14 schools in high-need or underprivileged neighbourhoods and these kids have flourished.” The focus on “high-need” kids and “underprivileged neighbourhoods,” alongside his earlier quoted statement about getting “kids off the street,” seems to imply that, without football, the boys at these schools may turn to idleness, delinquency or serious crime. The fear of idleness, and the belief that sport is a beneficial use of one’s time, is a common theme in North American and European SDP programs that has its roots as far back as the “playground movement” that attempted to contain and control children’s play in early twentieth century United States cities.[3]

It is important to note, however, that Ford is not alone in the use of such language concerning certain areas and citizens of Toronto or in his understanding of sport having a role in social development: in 2005 the City of Toronto released a report entitled Strong Neighbourhoods: A Call to Action that identified “priority neighbourhoods” for development, even using the term ““at risk” neighbourhoods” at one point. The report contains eight photographs that feature playgrounds or sport infrastructure, with an overwhelming of the people pictured being racial or ethnic minority youth. Clearly Ford’s understanding of sport and play as a tool for social development of “at risk” Torontonians is part of a much broader political understanding of sport.

Ultimately, while there are reasons to either celebrate or question Ford’s football work, it is difficult to make a judgment about its results because so little information is available. There are many questions that would need to be explored in order to assess the football foundation’s work. Does playing high school football help these boys become better people and, if so, how? Does it help lower crime or delinquency? Does it empower, rather than stigmatize, poor urban youth? Does it create inclusive sport spaces or does it encourage the violent masculinity that is hegemonic in many football subcultures? What is its impact on the non-players, including high school girls whose are not able to play football? Does it divert resources from other school programming, sport-related or not, that might be more equitably enjoyed by students? These are just some of the questions that would need to be answered in order to gain an appreciation of the social impact of the Rob Ford Football Foundation. What is not in doubt, however, is that these types of sport programs are entangled in complex political webs concerning identities based around class, race, gender, and geography.

I do not doubt the sincerity of Ford’s belief that football is a vehicle for positive social change, nor do I question his commitment to his charity work. That being said, there can be no question that Ford has leveraged this work for political purposes. In many cases, the assumed fact that he is “doing good” is deployed as a political smokescreen to deflect attention away from controversies or to brush aside critical questions from journalists. During his trial, the prosecuting lawyer even accused Ford of spinning the case to focus on his football foundation rather than the conflict of interest charge: “Mayor Ford wants this hearing to be about kids and the good work he does by directing donations to the high school football teams. . . . That is not what this hearing is about.” The judge also recognized that Ford was using the supposed social benefit of the football foundation as a smokescreen, but called out the mayor for this tactic in his ruling:

“It is apparent that the respondent was and remains focused on the nature of his football foundation and the good work that it does. He stated in evidence that this was his own “personal issue” that did not involve the financial interests of the City. . . . In fairness to Councillor Ford, it is common for a person who has blurred their roles to have difficulty “seeing” the problem at the beginning. It often takes others to point out the problem, especially in a case where the goal (fundraising for football programs for youth) is laudable. The validity of the charitable cause is not the point. . . . Where there is an element of personal advantage (in this case, the publication of the Councillor’s good works, even beyond what they had actually achieved), it is important not to let the fact that it is “all for a good cause” justify using improper methods for financing that cause. People who are in positions of power and influence must make sure their private fundraising does not rely on the metaphorical “muscle” of perceived or actual influence in obtaining donations.”

This discussion highlights that while SDP initiatives, such as Ford’s football foundation, may appear to be entirely altruistic and of inherent social benefit, they are in fact extremely complicated given the sociopolitical contexts in which they are enmeshed and the fact that they are often deployed as part of political agendas. Ford’s charity and coaching involvement in football has clearly played a large role in his political career as mayor of Toronto; however, given his commitment to this sport evangelism, its complex sociopolitical impact will continue to resonate long after his mayorship ends.

“He’s gonna be the greatest mayor this city has ever, ever seen, as far as I’m concerned!”: Don Cherry, Rob Ford, and Adversarial Politics

Sport has been entwined with Rob Ford’s mayoral regime literally since day one—at his inauguration, Ford invited none other than Don Cherry to speak. Cherry, a controversial and bombastic hockey commentator on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, is a celebrity who many Canadians have strong feelings about—whether positive or negative. There is a small, but insightful, body of academic work that critiques Cherry and highlights many of the problematic aspects about his television performances. The most prominent of these is a 1996 book chapter written by McMaster University sociology professor James Gillet, along with coauthors Philip White and Kevin Young, that labels Cherry “the Prime Minister of Saturday Night”[4] due to his influential Saturday night soapbox on the Coach’s Corner segments of CBC’s hockey broadcasts. Gillet and his coauthors critique Cherry’s on-air persona and highlight how the commentator reflects xenophobic and sexist attitudes and promotes violence within hockey. Other scholars have since turned their attention to Cherry. Focused studies by researchers such as Kristi Allain[5] (Trent University), Jay Scherer and Lisa McDermott[6] (both University of Alberta), and John Nater and Robert Maciel (both University of Western Ontario) have also critiqued features of Cherry’s persona, such as his promotion of violent masculinity and his alignment with the militarist political agenda of the Conservative Party of Canada. These matters have also been raised here in Left Hook, and, recently, my colleague Courtney Szto and I completed a draft version of a paper that examines the implications of his xenophobic dismissal of European and French Canadian players.

Ford's infamous inauguration with Canada's best-dressed xenophobic warmonger.

Ford’s infamous inauguration with Canada’s best-dressed xenophobic warmonger.

While Cherry is widely critiqued in Canadian intellectual circles, it is impossible to deny that he is a wildly popular figure in many segments of Canadian society. In 2004, he was famously voted the seventh “Greatest Canadian” of all-time in a CBC contest, making him the second-highest rated sports personality (behind Terry Fox) and the top-rated hockey figure (ahead of Wayne Gretzky, Maurice Richard, and others). As Gillet, White and Young perceptively note in their scholarly critique, Cherry has consciously fashioned an image as a working class “man of the people” and thus claims to speak for the average Canadian man, “the guy that goes in the beverage hall” as he once put it.[7] Cherry’s popularity makes him an influential figure. Tim Elcombe (Wilfrid Laurier University), in another examination of the populist commentator, reflects on Cherry’s role as a public intellectual:

“Cherry’s image of hockey translates into a vision of what he perceives as a moral Canadian nation. Using his public visibility to campaign for neo-conservative values with a Canadian context, Cherry advocates his ideals of moral Canadianness . . . while loudly chastising and mocking those who fail to assent to his idea of what a true Canadian man is and does.”[8]

Given Cherry’s conservative outlook and populist appeal, it is no surprise that he aligns closely with Rob Ford’s ideological vision of city politics. What was surprising was that Ford shamelessly brought Cherry into a formal and highly symbolic political ceremony, the mayoral inauguration, and gave him a platform to attack some of his favourite targets—namely, left-wing intellectuals. Cherry appeared in a gaudy pink floral-print suit and ripped into his critics while singing the praises of the new mayor. The full transcript of Cherry’s speech is worth a read, but here a couple of snippets:

“I’m wearing pink for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything. . . . I’ve been bein’ ripped to shreds by the left-wing pinko newspapers out there. It’s unbelievable. One guy called me a pink, a jerk in a pink suit, so I thought I’d wear that for him too.”

“You know, I was asked: why, why, why [the Rob Ford election] landslide. And I was in their corner right from the start. . . . Because Rob’s honest. He’s truthful. He’s like [former Toronto police chief and current Conservative cabinet member] Julian Fantino. What you see is what you get.”

“And that’s why I say he’s gonna be the greatest mayor this city has ever, ever seen, as far as I’m concerned! And put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks.
Thank you very much.”

Needless to say, Cherry’s antagonistic speech did not go down well with many city councilors – in particular because of its polarizing and divisive tone. Councilor Paula Fletcher stated that “it was completely inappropriate for the opening of council. We had all political stripes there and it was unfortunate.” Joe Mihevc, another Toronto councilor, stated that council is “a political arena where we make it a habit to reach out, talk to others and achieve consensus. To have that kind of, frankly, belligerence and pushing people aside, to start out this way I think is really unfortunate.” Because of its sheer audacity, outrageous bombast, and complete lack of congruence with the typically formal ceremony that marks a mayor’s inauguration, Cherry’s speech has become something of a legend in Toronto municipal politics. Spacing Magazine, in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to reclaim the “pinko” label, even produced a popular range of pink buttons to identify the wearer as “bike riding pinko” or a “left wing pinko.” Two years later, it is still common to see the pink buttons affixed, in a small gesture of defiance against the Ford administration, to bags and jackets throughout downtown Toronto.

While some people laughed or shrugged off Ford’s decision to invite Cherry to speak at his inauguration, it was in fact a highly significant decision that highlights some of the ways in which sport and politics can be intertwined. Firstly, Cherry represents a particular understanding of how men should act within and beyond the sport of hockey—that is, they should be aggressive, tough, and loyal fighters who will stand by their principles no matter what. While that may sound honourable on some level, there is little room in Cherry’s ideological vision for compromise or consensus-building; rather, he very much asserts a “with me or against me” mentality and has little tolerance for cultural difference.

The mentality symbolized by Cherry has become, sadly, increasingly common in politics. The bitter partisan divisions that characterized the 2012 US federal election are perhaps the most prominent recent example of this political trend. In Canada, parliamentary name-calling and strict voting alignment along partisan lines has created a situation where civil debate and consensus-making seem an impossibly idealistic dream. In his two years as mayor, Rob Ford has embodied this approach to politics, unwaveringly pushing forward his agenda and refusing to cooperate with or learn from those who disagree. There is no room in Ford’s Toronto for dissenting visions of the city, and he will attempt to bully those who oppose him. Cherry, thus, was the ideal figure to introduce Ford’s mayorship—as the commentator himself said, in defense of his speech, “if you [invite] a pit bull, you get a pit bull.”

Another important issue arising from Ford’s invitation to and endorsement by Cherry is that it meant that Ford was consciously aligning himself with Cherry’s local (and national) superstardom and attempting to leverage that for political cache. There is no doubt that, despite his controversial positioning in Canadian culture, Cherry is an incredibly popular figure; Ford, seemingly, was attempting to associate himself with the commentator’s high regard, particularly his populist everyman image. This was not the only time that Ford has aligned himself with a local sport celebrity; however, it was a particularly notable occasion. Ford’s invitation to Cherry showed disrespect to his fellow councilors and set a poor tone for a governing body supposedly representing diverse viewpoints. It also illustrated the surprising ways in which sport and politics can be intertwined in pursuit of particular ideological agendas.

Chasing the illusion of “World Class” city status: Pursuing elite sport while limiting grassroots access

It is a common myth that sport teams, stadiums, and/or mega-events will make a city into a “world class” municipality. The football loving Rob Ford, along with his brother and fellow city councilor Doug, seemingly buy into this idea wholeheartedly. In 2011, shortly after Ford took office, stories surfaced about the desire of he and his brother to bring a National Football League (NFL) team to Toronto. Said Doug Ford: “To be a world-class city, at least a North American world-class city, we need an NFL team.”

It is interesting that the Fords see an NFL team as necessary to being a “world class” city in North America. There are plenty of NFL cities that, while certainly possessing appealing aspects, are unlikely to be considered “world class.” Meanwhile, globally important cities in North America such as Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Vancouver do not have NFL teams. Even New York City is home to its two NFL teams in name only, as the Giants and Jets play out of MetLife Stadium in the state of New Jersey. When pressed about the value of an NFL team to Toronto, Doug Ford drew on rhetoric about job creation: “If there’s an opportunity for a Fortune 500 company like the NFL to come to town and create thousands and thousands of jobs . . . that would be great.” The Ford brothers never referenced any statistics about projected economic benefit or the possibility that Toronto would support an NFL franchise in sufficient numbers to make it a viable market. Furthermore, they ignored a wide body of research that casts doubt on claims about sport as a driver of local economic growth. In fact, as a Toronto Life article pointed out, some cities lose money by supporting NFL teams. Yet no such critical perspective entered into the Ford brothers’ rhetoric about an NFL team in Toronto.

The Ford brothers’ view of an NFL team conferring “world class status” seems, therefore, to hinge arbitrarily on their love of football and vague assertions about the purported economic benefits that would arise from having a team in Toronto. It also plays into what seems to be an insecurity amongst Toronto elites about the city’s global standing: as The Grid’s Edward Keenan points out, discussion about Toronto’s “world class” standing is a “tired, old status-anxiety argument.” Keenan goes on to note that “Toronto is a world-class city already, right now, by any reasonable estimation. . . . The point is not that Toronto is perfect. . . . But if you’re concerned about our status in comparison to other cities, you can relax, because we rank among the very best in the world.” Keenan points out that Toronto is, in many respects, a fantastic city that compares well with others around the world in terms of livability and culture; and that areas for improvement include more equitable social policies and better infrastructure. Football, however, does not enter the equation of calculating “world class” status.

Of course, professional sports teams are often the playthings of urban elites. Businessmen and other local elites populate the ubiquitous luxury boxes that ring every new stadium; politicians mingle amongst the captains of industry, perhaps also sparing some time for photo ops with fans or performing ceremonial face-offs, pitches, and kicks; depending on the sport and the city, many of the seats in the stadium may be so pricey that only the upper middle class can afford to attend more than one or two games per season. And, of course, various powerful and well-connected local firms benefit from the construction and maintenance of new stadiums, which oftentimes are funded in large part by a taxpaying public that will barely set foot in these sport palaces. So perhaps it is no surprise that Rob Ford and his brother seemed so intent on bringing a franchise in the NFL, the richest and most glamorous of North American sport leagues, to Toronto.

It is also interesting that the Ford regime privileges high performance, professional sport over widespread grassroots opportunity. One might expect that such a pro-sport mayor would encourage more of his citizens to participate in sport and physical activity. On the contrary, Ford’s 2012 budget called for the closure of some municipal swimming and wading pools, reductions in free skating and pick-up hockey at city arenas, and increased user fees for a variety of public facilities such as golf courses and children’s sport and dance programs. Further, it called for cuts to the snowplowing of sidewalks, a move that could significantly impact the walkability of the city for many of its elderly or physically disabled citizens. Combined with Ford’s noted loathing of cycling on city streets (see next section), these moves suggest a lack of concern for free and accessible physical activity in Toronto. While Ford would happily work to bring an NFL team to Toronto’s waterfront, he expresses no concern about reducing access to recreation centres, skating and hockey rinks, walkable sidewalks, and cycle-friendly streets. This strongly suggests that Ford’s pro-sport agenda has more to do with an ideological understanding of high performance sport as a form of municipal development—a stance that overwhelmingly favours social elites—than it does with the health and well-being of Toronto’s citizens. It also suggests that Ford understands Toronto’s “world class” status to hinge on spectacular developments that are inaccessible to many of the city’s citizens rather than on everyday improvements that would make the city a more livable and equitable place in which to live.

Keeping it between the lines: Ford’s vision of sport and the city

In many ways, Rob Ford’s love of football is an appropriate metaphor for his view of the function of a city. Football is a sport played on a contained surface marked with straight lines and it is a game in which players enter into and out of space in order to accomplish particular functional goals. How and where players may move is strictly regulated by the sport’s rules and there is, therefore, little room for spontaneity or aesthetic joy (there certainly are such moments in a football game, but they occur extremely infrequently compared to the regular flow of the game).

Ford seems to view the function of the city as similar to that of a football field. The city exists to allow people to move, in a regulated fashion, into and out of particular spaces. For Ford and many of his supporters in the outer suburbs, the downtown core is a space into which one enters for work or occasional entertainment that cannot be found in suburbia (sport matches, shows, etc.) and then leaves. It is a space that is visited rather than inhabited. Efficiency thus becomes the primary objective of this movement into space—commuters drive into the downtown core and, to the extent possible, the government ensures straight and multilane roads that are in the service of the automobile, not the pedestrian, cyclist, or public transit user. For those unfortunate non-drivers, public transit should be managed in such a way that the flow of automobile traffic in and out of the city is not impeded.

This helps explain, Ford’s “subways, subways, subways!” mantra and his intense hatred of streetcars. Ford’s loathing of streetcars seems to hinge on the fact that they occupy space on the road which could otherwise be filled by automobiles—despite the fact that one normal-sized Toronto streetcar can comfortably hold 102 people (at peak times it can cram in 132 passengers). Streetcars, however efficient they may be at moving people compared to cars that are often occupied only by their driver, of course typically move people within the city, not into and out of it. So they are therefore of no value in Ford’s Toronto, in which downtown is a place you drive to and leave rather than one in which you live. To return to the football metaphor, Ford’s focus on efficiency of movement within the city over the aesthetic pleasure of experiencing the city is much like the football coach cum field general, whose overriding interest is the tactical movement of bodies in pursuit of a broad outcome rather than the physical or emotional well-being of those individuals in this process.

It is also interesting that Ford champions football, a sport long associated with discipline and controlled violence, as a healthy and important pursuit for Toronto youth (or at least male youth), yet disdains other physical pursuits that may bring pleasure to participants because they use the city in a different way than he envisions it. Football, like hockey or other teams sports played in a bounded area, is Ford’s ultimate form of physical recreation in part because it is played in a contained space that is designated for that purpose. Football, like other activities pursued in designated spaces, typically does not disrupt traffic or interfere with the commute of suburbanites. However, activities like cycling or running may very well disrupt the efficient flow of automobiles so prized by Ford. As such, regardless of the pleasure that they may afford participants or their possibility to reimagine the physical boundaries of the city in unique and exciting ways, they are disdained by Ford.

Rob Ford's urban geography of Toronto imagines downtown as a place you drive into and out of, leaving little room for those who want to live among and use the city's streets for recreation and physicality.  Those people, branded "pinkos," wear the moniker with some pride.

Rob Ford’s urban geography of Toronto imagines downtown as a place you drive into and out of, leaving little room for those who want to live among and use the city’s streets for recreation and physicality. Those people, branded “pinkos,” wear the moniker with some pride.

During his election campaign, Ford stated that he wanted to move organized marathons off city streets to contained spaces, such as parks. Such a desire, even though it was never realized, speaks volumes about Ford’s view of the city as a place in which physical activity should be contained and, ultimately, subordinated to the hegemony of the automobile. Never mind that road races, to say nothing of year-round recreational road running, are a form of physical activity enjoyed by tens of thousands of Torontonians; or that they briefly offer, like car-free days on certain city streets, an opportunity to reconsider how we use and experience the city at street level. For Rob Ford, running is something that must, like football and other sports, be contained in a designated geographic area.

The same logic carries over to Ford’s view of cycling, a form of activity he is well known to disparage. In 2007, as a city councilor, Ford infamously blamed the victims of cycling accidents and asserted the primacy of the car when he proclaimed: “I can’t support bike lanes. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.” The fact that Ford blames cyclists for being involved in accidents suggests that he sees roads as the exclusive domain of the automobile, rather than spaces that can be shared by citizens using a variety of forms of transportation. In other words, cycling on city streets is antithetical to Ford’s understanding of how the city should function. He has thus turned the city street into an ideological battleground between the automobile and other forms of street level transit, famously declaring on his first day in office that “the war on cars stops today.” While this was largely a comment on the proposed construction of light rail public transit on urban roads, it was also a shot across the bow of cyclists and those who see city streets as having the potential to be more than simply conduits for automobiles.


Sport and politics can intertwine in surprising ways. Ultimately, Ford’s deployment of and relationship with sport is part of his political agenda and reflects his particular ideological vision of the city. Though sport and physical activity may seem inconsequential when it comes to municipal issues, the impact of Ford’s relationship with and views on sport have the potential to significantly affect the citizens of Toronto and to alter the city in particular ways. It is thus worth subjecting this relationship to critical scrutiny and to unpack the political significance of sport, physical activity, and play in the everyday lives of people in diverse contexts around the world.

Mark Norman is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Toronto and the editor of the blog Hockey in Society. Mark grew up in Vancouver, and against his better judgement has been a fan of the Vancouver Canucks for 25 (mostly painful) years.

[1] Bruce Kidd (2008), “Sport for Development and Peace: A New Social Movement,” Sport in Society, 11(4), 370-380.

[2] For a critical discussion of midnight basketball programs, see Douglass Hartmann (2001), “Notes on Midnight Basketball and the Cultural Politics of Recreation, Race, and At-Risk Youth,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 25, 339-371.

[3] Kidd (2008).

[4] James Gillet, Philip White, and Kevin Young (1996), “The Prime Minster of Saturday Night: Don Cherry, the CBC, and the Cultural Production of Intolerance,” In H. Holmes & D. Taras (Eds.), Seeing Ourselves: Media Power and Policy in Canada (pp. 59–72).

[5] Kristi A. Allain. ‘The Way We Play’: An Examination of Men’s Elite-level Hockey, Masculinity and Canadian National Identity, PhD dissertation, Trent University.

[6] Jay Scherer and Lisa McDermott (In press), “Don Cherry and the Cultural Politics of Rock’em Sock’em Nationalism: Complicating the Hero-Villain Binary in Canada, in L. Wenner (Ed.) Fallen Sport Heroes, Media, and Celebrity Culture.

[7] Quoted in Gillet et al., p. 61.

[8] Tim Elcombe (2010), “The Moral Equivalent of “Don Cherry,”” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes, 44(2), 194-218.

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One Response to Rob Ford and the Civics of Sports

  1. Thank you for this brilliant critique. Rob Ford is right that sports are a good way for youth to channel their energy positively, and his involvement may even help a handful of kids. But there are two key ingredients that are missing in the mix; they are compassion and empathy. Ford doesn’t know what these words mean. He’s an overgrown child who acts as though he’s above the law, has little respect for anyone who disagrees with him and is simply too unintelligent and ignorant to have any right to be making decisions that affect the biggest city in Canada. He doesn’t understand the most basic truths about the interrelatedness of crime, poverty and race. The asshole even asked federal immigration officials if we could deport the shooter who opened fire at a block party in a predominantly black neighbourhood last summer — when no one had any information whatsoever to suggest that the shooter was an immigrant. “I want ’em outta here!”, he barked. To then turn around and claim that he’s the innocent victim of a witch hunt because he coaches black high school students is despicable. He doesn’t liberate these kids. He hides behind them. Rob Ford – we want YOU outta here.

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