By Anna Kyprianou, APC Sports Consulting Ltd
“It’s especially up to us, as role models to go public and continue with things which are more important than playing football” – Alexandra Pop, footballer.
Ever since the first Olympic Games, athletes have become public figures and their words and actions are scrutinized by the public. Athletes are blessed with the gift of worldwide recognition. They are role models for younger generations and they often engage in philanthropy and campaigns on issues such as drugs, poverty and gender inequality. The effect of their exposure on the younger generation is proportional to the athletes’ profile and how well an athlete builds his/her public image. As soon as they have their first sporting success, they need to maintain a certain lifestyle and get involved in social responsibility projects. Athletes need to understand that their profiles can build or destroy their careers. They are almost obliged to be socially responsible individuals. The impact of their actions on society is much more important than their athletic achievement. For that, they will need to be careful about building their profile in a way that will create good role models for society.
Through social responsibility, athletes come across such issues as poverty, racism, drugs, and much more. One of the hottest issues in the sports industry right now is gender inequality, particularly in the context of equal pay between male and female athletes. The huge gap in compensation between the two genders in the same sport forced athletes to demand fairness and equality. Men and women united began debating on equal pay and demanding to be recognized as professionals. By definition, a professional athlete means a person who performs services in a professional athletic event and receives payment or other remuneration under contract. Both men and women athletes put the same effort into training, on building the relevant team to support them and on the field when competing. What differs is the exposure they have. For instance, people around the world know Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, but not everyone knows Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. Women athletes need to make an extra effort to be heard and most of the time they will do it in a rebellious manner—meaning without the consent of their club or federation. The highest net worth female athlete, Serena Williams, has to deal with media backlash almost every time she gets involved with social issues. Serena built a profile highly attached to social responsibility. Her engagement with social issues raised her profile in the eyes of media, sponsors and fans. When she stepped onto the court in a pantsuit her fans and the media praised the look, but the French Tennis Federation stated that this was “disrespectful for the sport”. The athlete stated: “After pregnancy, I’ve had a lot of problems with my blood clots. I’ve been wearing pants, in general, a lot when I play, so I can keep the blood circulation going. I dedicate this appearance to all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy.”
During the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, the French Football Association brought a new era to women’s football. Its worldwide exposure in combination with the footballers speaking out on several issues made it the most successful event in women’s sports so far. Through the World Cup a lot more issues that women athletes face came under the spotlight. One of them was negative comments on Morgan’s tea celebration. The incident took place after Alex Morgan (USA national team) scored a goal against England and celebrated by pretending she was drinking tea. After all the gossip Alex stated: “We have to celebrate but not too much, we have to do something, but it always has to be in a limited fashion.”
As soon as athletes realize that they have a voice, they need to build their profile in a way that they address any injustice they come across. On the fight for equal pay between men and women footballers, Megan Rapinoe urged Ronaldo and Messi to support this fight. Their participation in social media turned the fight into a global struggle and turned the heat on not only for football associations but for sponsors as well. The national football associations of Brazil, Australia, Finland and England have adopted equal pay policies for men’s and women’s football. Nike launched two campaigns this year where it addressed the issue of gender equality. One of them is the “You can’t stop us” videos where some of the highest net worth athletes participated, such as Serena Williams, Lebron James and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Athlete activism is very important in the fight for gender equality in sports. Men and women have to be united in this fight. Athletes, nowadays, are influencers; their involvement in social justice can help raise awareness. Gender inequality is not just a debate about equal pay; it’s a debate about recognition, respect and professionalism.