Earlier this month, Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of American sports clothing manufacturer, Under Armour, described Donald Trump as “a real asset” to the United States. Taking a stance in direct opposition to Plank’s, one of Under Armour’s highest-paid endorsers, the Golden State Warriors’ point guard, Stephen Curry, went on to say, “I agree with that description, if you remove the ‘et’.”
Following his election as the 45th president of the US, Trump has his electorate divided. It is worth reiterating that the Republican nominee won three million fewer votes than his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton. While some prominent figures have endorsed his presidency a larger chunk has decried his views.
And many from the sports fraternity have been very vocal in their opposition to Trump’s policies.
Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James has decried Trump’s executive order that banned people from seven Muslim-majority countries to travel into the United States. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, he said, “I am not in favour of this policy or any policy that divides and excludes people. I stand with the many, many Americans who believe this does not represent what the United States is all about. And we should continue to speak out about it.”
Not long before the comments from these NBA stars, the newly-crowned Super Bowl champions Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett of the New England Patriots declined President Trump’s invite to the White House. McCourty told Time, “I’m not going to the White House. Basic reason for me is I don’t feel accepted in the White House. With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t.” Bennett tweeted,“America was built on inclusiveness not exclusiveness.” Three more of their teammates have followed suit since.
The dissenting voices against Trump have also been raised by top American coaches, with San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich declaring in the aftermath of the early November election, “He [Trump] is in charge of our country; that’s disgusting”. Popovich’s Warriors counterpart, Steve Kerr, decried the Muslim ban by saying: “I think [the policy] is shocking. It’s a horrible idea.”
Adding to the dissenting voices against Trump, United States soccer captain Michael Bradley has been equally vocal in his opposition to the Muslim ban. He posted on Instagram: “When Trump was elected, I only hoped that ... President Trump would be different than the campaigner Trump. That the xenophobic, misogynistic and narcissistic rhetoric would be replaced with a more humble and measured approach to leading our country. I was wrong. And the Muslim ban is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward.”
The political activism of the American sporting fraternity is not a new phenomenon. The players have been actively voicing their views on the issues concerning their countrymen. Colin Kaepernick was in news through the course of the NFL regular season for his decision to kneel down when the Star-Spangled Banner was played before games. The San Fancisco 49ers’ quarterback’s decision was based upon his opposition to the perceived atrocities of the American state against people of colour. The increased instances of police brutalities against black Americans ultimately led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” the quarterback explained his decision.
From Carlos Delgado’s opposition to the Iraq war, all the way up to Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enlist for the Vietnam War, there have been many stories of American athletes taking a stand on pertinent political issues of their time.
After Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur took a stand against the violence perpetrated by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in Ramjas College, she became the centre of ire. Her old social media posts were dug up to reveal that she also stood up against war-mongering with Pakistan even though she lost her father, an army officer, in the 1999 Kargil conflict.
As social media trolls and right-wing politicians took potshots at her, former Indian opener Virender Sehwag also joined their ranks and posted a picture of himself holding a placard that read: “I did not score two triple centuries, my bat did”. An obvious and distasteful dig at Gurmehar’s old placard that read: “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him.”
Sehwag’s kowtowing to the powers that be is just one of the many such instances.
From Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s November decision to demonetise the two highest currency notes, which saw millions of Indians cue outside banks for hours at a stretch to withdraw their hard-earned money, to the beef ban that percolated into the lynching of a man close to the national capital, to numerous Dalits being assaulted, not one athlete of eminence has come forward to decry those decisions.
The only voice that came from an athlete regarding demonetisation was that of Indian cricket team captain, Virat Kohli, who went on to whole-heartedly lend his support to the prime minister’s move.
“For me, it is the greatest move I have seen in the history of Indian politics by far, hands down. I have been so impressed by it. It’s unbelievable what’s happening,” was his take when asked by a reporter at a press conference.
Showing complete disregard for the millions of suffering Indians, who bore the brunt of the dubious decision, he laughingly added: “I was actually going to pay my hotel bills in Rajkot and I was taking out the old money and I forgot that it isn’t of any use anymore. I could have actually signed on it and given it to people, they are that useless now.”
Apart from a complete absence of sensitivity, Kohli’s comments also showed his lack of understanding of the issue at hand as the demonitised notes were not rendered completely useless for they could be exchanged at banks for newer currency notes.
It is no secret that the Board of Control for Cricket India (BCCI) is an extremely politicised body with several stakeholders coming from prominent political parties. And with Anurag Thakur, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP, at the helm of the BCCI at the time of Kohli’s comments, it was no surprise that the Indian captain supported the government’s move.
Among other political upheavals that engulfed India in the past year was the crackdown on student activists in university campuses across the country. The flame that was sparked by the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in University of Hyderabad last year led to protests in Delhi’s Jawaharlal University and Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, among others.
JNU was also embroiled in a different controversy as videos showing some students – with their faces covered – chanting anti-India slogans surfaced. The videos were later found to be doctored. But using the dubious recording as evidence, some media houses were quick to label the students as anti-nationals. Popular sentiment was turned against JNU students and it came to a point where one of their leaders, Kanhaiya Kumar, was beaten up by a frenzied mob of lawyers while he was being produced at a court.
As the government struggled to quell the air of discontent among the students, one of the proposals of the then Human Resource Development Minister, Smriti Irani, was to get the campuses to hoist the national flag “prominently and proudly” in order to instill nationalism in students.
Opener Shikhar Dhawan gave his full endorsement to the flag decision, saying: “My take is simple. It [flag] should be unfurled at the Universities. It is the pride of the nation. The more the merrier I would say. Though you have touched upon a sensitive topic, one should never say anything ill about the country you live in.”
Wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, who won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, had no qualms in labelling the protesting JNU students as anti-nationals, and he did so via a poem on his Twitter account.
The only dissenting voice amidst all the turmoil that engulfed the nation in 2016 came from Suresh Raina, who termed the JNU student leader Kumar as an “honest” and “true fighter” through a Facebook post. The batsman had to ultimately take down his post after endless trolling.
In contrast to their silence on pertinent political issues, Indian sportsmen have fought elections and readily accepted Rajya Sabha nominations after retiring. From Palwankar Baloo as early as pre-independence India to Sachin Tendulkar in the recent past, there have been many who have forayed into politics. However, when it comes to speaking out during their athletic peak – when their voices would carry more weight – there has been nothing but pin-drop silence.
In India, most sports bodies are helmed by veteran politicians, some of whom have been in power long before most of the active players were even born. BJP stalwart Vijay Malhotra is the president of the Archery Association of India since the early 1970s, while Congress and Nationalist Congress Party leaders Akhilesh Das Gupta and Praful Patel head the badminton and football bodies respectively. BJP leader Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh presides over the Wrestling Federation of India and his party colleague Abhishek Matoria runs the boxing federation, to count just a few. It isn’t a sound career move for an athlete to take a contrary view in the given circumstances.
The numerous domestic leagues that have sprouted in recent years have also not acted as a liberating force for the players owing to a handful of corporate houses – with well-established political leanings – owning teams across leagues.
For a players to speak out is also bad for them as brands at a time when differing opinions are made grounds for dropping celebrities from sponsorship agreements to add to the incessant trolling that inevitably follows on social media.
It takes courage and belief to voice dissent. Unfortunately, these traits are lacking in a majority of Indian athletes. It is impossible to imagine an Indian sportsperson making a statement like that of Curry or Popovich. In the current climate of hyper-nationalism and alternative facts, it is important to speak truth rather than bowl down to the powers that be. In that respect, Indian athletes have a lot to learn from their American counterparts.