For the longest time, we’ve been told that sports and politics don’t mix.
Sportspersons, in turn, have been told that they should ‘stick to sports’. They’ve been asked to focus on their craft without worrying about the world around them. They’ve been told to toe the line because they don’t know better. They’ve been advised to not speak out — even when they perhaps would like to.
But as the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death show, athlete activism isn’t dead. In fact, it is probably at its most powerful now. From Coco Gauff to Michael Jordan, athletes from all over the world have come out and expressed outrage at the death of an unarmed black man in Minnesota who was in police custody.
We see them speak. We hear their voice. We realise they have a voice. We realise that they too want to make a difference. And mostly, we trust that they don’t have an ulterior motive.
And their voices have power. They are not trying to win us over, rather they are just telling us how they feel.
The history of sports protests goes way back. But after the 1960s and 1970s when Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith, and Billie Jean King provided memorable examples, we saw a dip of sorts. The role of the athlete started getting more rigidly defined after that and the moment you define something, you are also conforming it to something very specific.
But then things were kicked back into gear by the protest that Colin Kaepernick initiated during the 2016-2017 National Football League season by kneeling during the national anthem as a way to bring attention to racial injustice in the United States.
While Kaepernick was not signed to an NFL team at the start of the 2017-2018 NFL season and is still without a team, other players continued to kneel during the anthem as a way to protest social injustice in America. But last week, the NFL finally admitted that they were wrong to come down hard on the protests.
On Thursday night, some of the NFL’s biggest stars released a video challenge to the league.
They asked the NFL, which had followed a policy of appeasement towards the powers-that-be in the past, to apologise and recognise the current moment by putting out a statement with these words: “We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people. We, the NFL admit were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all that speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.”
And the NFL’s stunning response, which came within minutes, showed that sometimes you just need to keep banging on the door long enough and hard enough.
On its own, the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goddell would have probably done nothing. They were known to be in US President Donald Trump’s corner. But the athletes forced their hand with their determination and dedication towards a bigger cause.
If anything, the way things played out shows us that true change takes time. If anything, it shows us why athletes must continue to speak without fear or favour.
In places like India, where government support is a huge factor in the careers of sportspersons, it is perhaps a difficult choice to make. But then it wouldn’t have been easy for Kaepernick either.
Some find it easier to speak in favour of the government because there is no real downside to it. When the power changes hands, their views change too. But that isn’t true activism... not even close.
Many others choose to avoid controversial issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act or even the plight of migrants walking home because it is uncomfortable or because they are afraid of the backlash.
A few who do speak up, get trolled mercilessly.
There are, of course, many who won’t like it. They’ll bring the old ‘sportspersons should stick to sports’ argument but there are others who will argue that sportspersons should use their status as influencers to express their societal concerns without pressure.
Other fans have claimed that athletes, like all citizens, have the right to peacefully protest. And it is a right that should be exercised cautiously but if you don’t use it, you forget you even have the right to do it.
The protests in the US and around the world have shown us once again that it is okay for our athletes to have a conscience; that it’s okay for them to feel that some things are wrong; that it’s okay for them to not agree with the government; that it’s okay to not stick to just sports. And maybe, at some point, it will filter down to India too.