Puerto Rico, as a territory of the United States, has no sovereignty as a political entity. The Supreme Court confirmed this in 2016, ruling in several cases that Puerto Rico continues to be under the rule of the Territorial Clause, which gives complete power over all territories to Congress.
But there is an area in which Puerto Rico behaves like a sovereign nation: sports.
Puerto Rico fields teams in the Olympics, the World Baseball Cup, the Pan-American Games, and the Central American and Caribbean Games. It gives the people of Puerto Rico, as NPR put it in a recent story, “a sense of independence” — without having to commit to political independence, which is an unpopular idea in Puerto Rico.
Antonio Sotomayor, in his 2016 book The Sovereign Colony, argues that sports teams stood in for national sovereignty in the 1930s, in the wake of the Tydings bill which would have made Puerto Rico independent. That bill, as well as some alternatives proposed at the time, called for a plebiscite on one question: “Should the people of Puerto Rico be sovereign and independent?”. The Tydings bill proposed a four-year transition and no special trade deal, Puerto Rican leaders didn’t accept it, and the plebiscite did not take place.
Instead, according to Sotomayor, sports took the place of sovereignty and independence. When Puerto Rico took part in the Olympics in 1948, Sotomayor claims, “the result of this participation was that it legitimized and consolidated colonialism. Creating the commonwealth did not alter the basic colonial structure of the unincorporated territorial status, as stated in the Insular Cases of the early twentieth century. Puerto Ricans still had no official international political presence, could not establish trade with other countries, and were still subjected to Congress’s plenary powers. They still could not be fully represented in the U.S. Congress or vote for the U.S. president…International Olympic participation filtered the aspirations of independence followers because it gave the island a chance to play as a sovereign nation, hoist the Puerto Rican flag, and sing the national anthem, ‘La Borinqueña.’”
Rafael R. Diaz-Torres makes a similar argument in his thesis for the Pennsylvania State University, saying, “Puerto Rico and its colonial problem have never figured among the priorities of the U.S. government. While the executive branch of the American government has created Presidential Commissions to study the Puerto Rican case, their recommendations have not been properly considered by the legislative power. Such a lack of interest from the U.S. federal congress complicates all attempts to modify the territorial status of the island. As this work will discuss, this lack of political action from all the parts involved often makes different cultural expressions, including sports nationality, complicit with colonialism instead of being active agents of sociopolitical change.”
Diaz-Torres argues that sports sovereignty “is a form of international recognition that does not require independence or any form of political sovereignty. Through its IOC membership, Puerto Rico is seen as a nation without sundering its political relationship with the United States.”
Whether Puerto Rico is playing at sovereignty or feeling good about being seen as a nation, sports sovereignty supports a sense of “national” pride that is based on a very weak foundation. Puerto Rico’s participation in the Olympics could be blocked by the U.S. at any time; it could also be continued after statehood. It is the International Olympic Committee’s call. It is not recognition of Puerto Rico’s nationhood by the community of nations.
Sports sovereignty, then, serves as a safety valve for Puerto Rico’s continuing dissatisfaction with the territorial status that keeps residents of the Island from being able to participate fully in American democracy or receiving the same federal support as the 50 states. It perpetuates the myth that the territorial status is “the best of both worlds.” It distracts from the problems created by territorial status.
Governor Ricardo Rossello says that he is proud of Puerto Rican athletes just as a Texan is doubtless proud of Texan athletes. It is unquestionable that Texans are proud of Texan athletes.
Update, August 2021
There is a statehood bill currently under consideration in Congress.If Puerto Rico becomes a state, it could affect the degree of sports sovereignty en joyed by Puerto Rico. Will the majority of Puerto Ricans be able to give up the illusion of sports sovereignty while maintaining their pride in Puerto Rican athletes?