Black Lives Matter: Should sports and politics mix?
Athletes using sport as platform to highlight societal issues is not new, but backlash, hostility continues to be loud.
LeBron James was told to “shut up and dribble” by a Fox News anchor in 2018 in response to the three-time NBA champion’s comments on racism and being Black in the United States.
Colin Kaepernick was driven out of the NFL after the 2016 season and blasted by Donald Trump for taking a knee during the national anthem – protesting racism, police brutality and racial inequality.
In 1968, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two Black medal-winning athletes, were booed before being expelled from the Olympics for their podium protest against racism.
Earlier this year, tennis star Noami Osaka was trolled online and faced a backlash after joining the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests on social media and in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
Osaka said what she felt because she believed “being silent is never the answer”.
“Everyone should have a voice in the matter and use it,” Osaka said before rubbishing calls that forbid athletes from speaking out on politics, human rights and social issues.
“I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain. What gives you more right to speak than me?”
I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain. Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me? By that logic if you work at IKEA you are only allowed to talk about the “GRÖNLID” 🤷🏽♀️?
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) June 4, 2020
Osaka is not the only athlete who spoke out following the death of George Floyd in May.
The United Kingdom’s Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton attended a BLM protest in London and said he was “extremely positive that change will come”.
Coco Gauff, 16-year-old tennis sensation, addressed a protest in Florida, saying: “I was eight when Trayvon Martin was killed. So why am I here at 16 still demanding change?”
But what happens when athletes, with their enormous following, take a stance and are told to “shut up” as they are “not qualified enough” to be discussing matters off the field?
“It’s infuriating. We need the world to know that we’re not just players, we’re individuals with families, rights and feelings,” Hafsa Kamara, a Black American track athlete, told Al Jazeera.
“We are a voice of someone who lives in the same world as others. We need to be heard. People make us feel like we’re only paid to dribble balls and run fast. That’s taking away our rights,” added Kamara, who represented Sierra Leone at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem before basketball games in 1996.
US footballer Megan Rapinoe has campaigned for equal pay for women footballers.
Former Afghanistan captain Khalida Popal chose football as a tool to “stand for my rights, and to help other women stand for their rights”.
Marcus Rashford used the coronavirus-enforced break in the English Premier League (EPL) to force the British government to continue providing free school meals for vulnerable children outside term time.
Former Pakistan cricket captain Shahid Afridi regularly spoke about the human rights violations in Indian-occupied Kashmir.
Arsenal and Germany footballer Mesut Ozil spoke out against the persecution of the Uighurs in China.
Rob Koehler, director-general of Global Athlete, a pressure group, said, “Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right”.
“To say an athlete can’t use their platform when they’re unpaid workers coming to the games, bringing all the revenues in, and they can’t use their voice to express about a cause that is important to them, is outdated and out of touch,” Koehler told the AFP news agency.
While athletes using sport and the field as a platform to highlight societal issues is not new, the backlash and the hostility, even from fervent followers, continues to be loud and dismissive.
Some have even opted to stay clear, most notably when Michael Jordan refused to endorse African American Democrat Harvey Gantt against Republican Jesse Helms, a notorious racist, in the 1990 Senate race.
But the recent global anti-racism protests have made it clear: Sport cannot stay out of politics.
“Athletes are humans like the rest of us, and they have a right to speak out like the rest of us,” Douglas Hartmann, professor and chair of sociology at the University of Minnesota, told Al Jazeera.
“What makes that difficult is the social construction we have of sport being separate from politics. This separation, in many ways, is a constructed and fictitious one,” added Hartmann, who is also author of Midnight Basketball: Race, Sports, and Neoliberal Social Policy.
The convergence of sports and celebrity can have a powerful influence on everyday politics, according to a research paper published last year.
But the courage and the act of speaking out does not come without fear of being reprimanded, rebuked and punished.
Smith and Carlos had their careers ended by the podium protests in 1968.
Gwen Berry and Race Imboden were reprimanded for protesting on the medal stand at the 2019 Pan-Am Games.
In 2018, Manchester City football club’s manager Pep Guardiola was fined for wearing a yellow ribbon in solidarity with the independence movement in Catalonia.
Earlier this year, the International Olympic Committee handed out guidelines banning participants in the now-postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics from kneeling, fist-raising or “any political messaging”.
People make us feel like we're paid only to dribble balls and run fast. That's taking away our rights
But following the recent surge in voices calling for equality and inclusiveness – and their reach, influence and intensity – sport bodies and organisations have taken unprecedented steps.
The West Indies cricket team was given the all-clear to wear a BLM emblem on their collar during their upcoming Test series in England.
Footballers playing in the EPL had “Black Lives Matter” displayed on their jerseys and were allowed to kneel at the start of the games.
For the league, it seems that all of a sudden, Black lives did matter. But it was quick to clarify the move was “not endorsement of political movement”, and there is a worry among many that it will be temporary – and what happens when players take on the next issue.
“Premier League clubs might have BLM on their shirts, but there are still hardly any Black coaches, for example,” Danyel Reiche, associate professor for Comparative Politics at American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera.
“It remains to be seen how sports associations react if athletes raise their voices on other issues which are considered as more sensitive, such as the discrimination of Palestinian football players by Israel.
“This also violates the inclusive nature of sport, and I believe such protest should be also accepted,” added Reiche, whose research interests include sport policy and politics.
Went down to Hyde Park today for the peaceful protest and I was so proud to see in person so many people of all races and backgrounds supporting this movement. It was really moving. I’m feeling extremely positive that change will come, but we cannot stop now. #blacklivesmatter ✊🏾 pic.twitter.com/koOTEPOXAh
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) June 21, 2020
The EPL also admitted that the display by Rashford and other footballers could set “uncomfortable precedents”.
As a result, Olympian Kamara is not entirely convinced by the genuineness of the associations’ involvement in the protests.
“I feel right now there is the branding and marketing; it’s an opportunity to get into the trends and be part of the hashtags,” Kamara said.
Hartmann also does not feel that the NFL owners “had a big change of heart”.
“They realised who their workers are. It’s far more about where the consumer base is, how dependent the industry is on the celebrity athletes and their voices. They (the owners) have to acknowledge them and allow them the power to do that.”
But in addition to what some athletes term “temporary” gestures by the authorities, there is also still concern about the longevity and lastingness of the movement that has recently seemed to gain momentum.
While Hartmann believes the recent movement has “opened a door” and led to a “significant shift in public perception”, Kamara has reminded her fellow athletes the onus was on them to not “let up” and be a greater and longer part of the conversation despite the criticism.
“If we continue to keep at it, wear the armbands, take a knee and speak up, we’ll let people know it wasn’t a one-off, but it’s our lives we’re talking about – on and off the court.
“We understand that we live a very privileged life. We have a following, and we need to use it to its extreme. We have to keep our word and stand our ground.”