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Money Smart Athlete Blog

How can elite athletes achieve social justice?

By Iacovos Iacovides, APC Sports Consulting

It has been over four years since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand up for the American national anthem, later explaining that he cannot show pride for the flag of a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. Kaepernick was subsequently punished and blacklisted which is something really hard to wrap your head around given the recent uproar following the murder of George Floyd. However, at the time, Kaepernick became the most hated athlete in the US and one of the most controversial in the country’s history. Megan Rapinoe followed suit and was booed by the crowd. She said:

“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of colour on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.” (source: www.outsports.com)

Nowadays, taking the knee has become a weekly routine. In the English Premier League—the most prestigious football league in the world—players take the knee week in and week out before a game. Admittedly, it is becoming harder and harder to remember that it all started with George Floyd, but that is precisely the point. George Floyd’s murder was not the cause, it was the symptom and the movement is not about Floyd per se but about racial injustice.

So why has the movement gained traction? The underlying factors are still the same. Racism is as prevalent now as it was in 2016 and people of colour were treated as second class citizens in 2016 as much as they are now. The answer is momentum.

Everything boils down to identifying that moment in time where that invisible force in society is waiting to be tapped into and funnelled to the right direction. That, of course, does not mean that athletes need to pause fighting and wait for the perfect moment. They should always keep the fight alive whether through activism or financial assistance and of course, it can be about any type of injustice be that inside or outside the pitch and related or unrelated to sports.

We have already mentioned Marcus Rashford fighting for children rights and Megan Rapinoe struggling for the LGBTQ+ community and gender equality in previous articles. There are other well-known cases and some not well-known ones that their fame has faded. For instance, Arthur Ashe speaking against the South African apartheid and eventually getting arrested for protesting outside the nation’s embassy in Washington, while Billie Jean King one of the pioneers of gender equality activism in sports has been pushing for gender equality for decades.

Donations are also a prevalent way for athletes to do their bit as far as social justice is concerned—particularly for those wishing to keep a low profile and avoid controversies. Nowadays, athletes are criticised not so much for talking against a certain social justice project – for they rarely do— but mostly for not speaking in favour of it. For example, NBA coaches and players who did not speak against the recent spree of violence against African Americans came under scrutiny for it. Although, it is easy to point the finger and say “how can they sit idly by while all these happens”, history has taught us that we are not always kind to athlete-activists. Case in hand: Colin Kaepernick became a free agent following the 2016 season and remains as such to this day. Mohammed Ali saw his career being put on hold for a while, after refusing to join the army and openly advocating against the Vietnam War. What is ironic about the latter case is that eventually, the great majority of Americans came to agree with him. Nonetheless, it cannot be easy for people who have worked towards something their entire lives to jeopardise it by doing something irrelevant to that activity.

All in all, there was one vital ingredient missing from the latter two cases: institutional support. Unfortunately, our institutions and not just in sport are sticky, allergic to change and slow to act which is why for any social justice project, momentum is paramount. This does not suggest that momentum coupled with activism are enough to bend institutional resistance, but at least it can mitigate the backlash that athletes such as Kaepernick might face. The paradox is that without those willing to stick their neck out like the former 49ers quarterback and Rapinoe, and make that first step for others to follow then social justice movements in sports would probably be non-existent.

Social justice forces have always been present in sports, now more than ever. They can take many forms (racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights) and come in different shapes and sizes— activism, financial donations and so on. As I have tried to make explicit, it usually comes down to the momentum of the time. However, the paradox is that to identify that right moment in time is only easy in hindsight and that misinterpreting the mood of the time can have disastrous consequences on athletes and their careers. Yet one can only keep fighting, even with all the risks that come with it.

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