By Jaspreet Chahal
In recent years, there has been a surge of athletes protesting and championing political causes.
Marcus Rashford, who famously campaigned for free school meals, effectively forced Boris Johnson into U-Turn, with Johnson agreeing to replace sub-standard packages for low-income children with food vouchers, and promised £396 million to support low-income families during the pandemic. Rashford is hardly the first, nor the last athlete to become involved in politics. Yet, he and many athletes have faced very harsh criticism for such. Colin Kaepernick was effectively blacklisted from being able to play within the National Football League in retaliation for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
This is problematic. Athletes first and foremost are human beings. They will inevitably feel strongly about various political issues and consider themselves to have a duty to share such with their large platforms, particularly in order to represent people or marginalised groups. This has happened throughout history.
In 1967, Muhammad Ali publicly refused the Vietnam War draft on account of his religious beliefs and his objections to the United States’ action in Vietnam on account of the hypocrisy of their own treatment of black people in America. Ali refused to fight his “brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America” as “they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father”. He was arrested, had his boxing licence suspended (at the zenith of his career) and was stripped of his World Heavyweight Champion title.
Ali’s refusal of the draft coincided with the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War sentiment moving from fringe counterculture into the mainstream of the American socio-political sphere. Ali, one of the most revered American figures of all time, vocalised his views and galvanised others to reject war and racism. Many others followed in suit, including many other African American boxers, and many now remember this as Ali’s greatest fight.
Ali was also by no means the first. Boxer Max Baer, who was half-Jewish through his father, famously donned the star of David on his trunks during a 1933 fight against Max Schmeling, following the rise of Nazi Germany. Schmeling, a metaphor of the Nazi strong man, was Hitler’s favourite boxer in New York. The match was watched by 60,000 spectators live, even at the height of the Great Depression, the victory of the American-Jewish Baer over a boxer from Nazi Germany was symbolic and allowed Baer to demonstrate his support to the Jewish community in an era of rife anti-Semitism.
Politicians have readily criticised athletes making political stances. Donald Trump infamously decried that the league owners of the NFL should ‘Get that [protestors of the National Anthem] son of a bitch off the field right now’ and fire them.
The hypocrisy of the political community in criticising protests in sport is ironic considering the notable examples of politicians themselves forcing politics into the sanctified sporting sphere.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on the 24th of December 1979, the Carter administration set a deadline for the Soviet’s to leave Afghanistan on account of the upset of the balance of powers in the region, the alleged human rights abuses, and the mounting Cold War, with one of the ‘punishments’ being the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games. Various countries joined the US, including Canada, West Germany, and Japan, with England’s individual associations for various sports also boycotting. Subsequently, the Soviet Union and their allies boycotted the 1984 Olympic games.
Such use of political force failed to consider the members of the sporting community who were adversely affected by boycotts after years of training. Nations like the United States and Russia have forced politics onto the supposed neutral stage of international sports, time and time again. So why should athletes not be allowed to bring their personal politics into the stage of sport themselves?
Many argue that allowing athletes to campaign for political causes is ambiguous and may lead to the rise of unacceptable political views, such as, for example, neo-Nazism, where is the line dictating what is acceptable?
Perhaps the public?
If a view is so unacceptable and an athlete professes to merely follow it and not try to convince others, they can become denounced within the public sphere. For example, in late 2020, Djokovic was criticised for his anti-vaccination stance in the middle of a pandemic by various media outlets. Thus, if an athlete did champion views that were criticised heavily, such as Nazism, they would likely be publicly panned, and lose various sponsorships.
We should allow athletes like Marcus Rashford to use their huge platforms to champion their political views and bring about positive change within our societies. Rashford did a public service during the pandemic, when Johnson’s government did the poor children of the UK a disservice. Sanctioning the power of Rashford would be unfair and wrong. Furthermore, arguing politics has no place in sport disregards history.
Image: Franco Folini via Creative Commons.