Speaking Out in Sports: The Platform of an Athlete Comes with its Limits

By Patrick Livings

The ability of athletes to speak out is bringing worldwide attention to a variety of issues such as China’s maltreatment of Uighurs, Black Lives Matter and UK governmental policies that have been subject to discussion. The increase in live television alongside the influence of social media has put value upon the actions of athletes both within and outside of their sports. This attention has given athletes considerable power to affect others by speaking out for what they believe in. However, athletes are often limited in their ability to express themselves due to the boundaries that are established within their league, club or committee. 

In December 2019, a prominent former Arsenal football player, Mesut Ozil, spoke out about his concern at the millions of Uighurs being mistreated in camps in China. This followed a previous investigation by the BBC who found that a million of China’s Muslim Uighur population were believed to have been detained without trial in high-security camps. Following his statement, China threatened to pull the following Arsenal match against Manchester City from the schedule of Chinese Central Television (CCTV). This continued with a removal of Ozil entirely from the Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) 2020 video game.

Now in January 2021, Özil has just transferred to the Turkish football team Fenerbahce. Even on the club’s highest salary of £350,000/week and their former club record signing, Ozil had not recently played many minutes on the pitch. Indeed, he had not played for Arsenal post-pandemic after being left out of their 25-man Premier League squad. It shows that sports personalities have to walk a fine line in terms of their ability to speak out, even the most prominent of them. For a team such as Arsenal, which stated that it ‘has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics’, playing Ozil may have been too high of a risk. A person who speaks out against China and had the divisive Turkish President Erdogan as his best man could be viewed as mixing the club into a highly political sphere that the club publicly attempts to distance itself from. The huge loss of revenue for Arsenal FC of a lost viewership in China would have been incomparable to the wage of Ozil himself and worth the criticism from the public. 

China’s booming market has made teams try to become part of this economic expansion. It is notable that clubs in Germany are actually trying to expand their reaches towards the East, where a rise in China’s financial power could benefit them. For European football, the attraction of a growing economy that has had average GDP growth of nearly 10 percent a year since 1978, with a large rise in the middle class, is inevitable. This is shown as six Bundesliga clubs including Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt have offices in China. The expansion is a deliberate strategy for wider viewership and economic gain.

Compared to English football clubs that try to distance themselves from politics, German football is quite different. Indeed, it has been found that German teams actually support political messages. This came after Eintracht Frankfurt took an active stance against the far-right, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Frankfurt announced that they would not allow any of the party members to join the club as members. 

However, Ozil is not the first athlete to have been punished for their activism and neglected by their sports. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who managed to bring the football team to the 2013 Super Bowl, decided to kneel during the American National Anthem instead of standing as customary. This was to protest against racial injustice, police brutality and systematic oppression in the US. At the end of the season, Kaepernick became a free agent and still remains unsigned to this day. This effectively removed him from the NFL. 

Although Kaepernick may have been removed from a position to speak out against the status quo, many athletes have recently used their platforms to bring to attention issues such as police brutality. For example, “Black Lives Matter” was painted on every court in the NBA 2019-2020 games in Orlando. The basketball players were also given the option of adding messages to the back of their jerseys, with the most popular words on the back including ‘equality’, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘I can’t breathe’. The response of this was an increase in social media attention on the subject with these messages trending on Twitter. This sporting activism allows greater worldwide attention being given to these matters and increases the understanding of the support that these movements receive. 

Kaepernick established a precedent for standing up for racial injustice within sport, not only in the US. Lewis Hamilton wore a t-shirt to the Formula One race at Mugello with the statement, “arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor”. Again, Hamilton faced a dispute as the FIA, F1’s governing body, is a signatory to the Olympic charter founded in 1908. This means that it forbids any demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda. In the face of this, Hamilton has stated that he is determined to continue pursuing what he views as a human rights issue rather than a political point. This stance makes his views valid to be expressed, as it does not infringe on the regulations laid out in the charter. His actions encouraged other drivers to speak out and for F1 to position itself in a strong public anti-racism stance. This shows the effectiveness of sportspeople in a position of power to make a real difference in society. 

Society is often greatly benefited by the actions of athletes. Indeed, ESPN found that more than one in seven sports fans support their players and teams voicing their opinion on pressing societal concerns.  They reflect the views of the people and have a public backing and platform that can be used to propel initiatives and beliefs. An example of this within the UK can be seen in Marcus Rashford’s efforts to help some of the most vulnerable families, when they had been left neglected by the government. The government had initially rejected the plea to make it keep paying for a £15 a week food voucher that would support some of England’s poorest families over the summer months. However, Rashford managed to make the government U-turn in their decision to provide these vouchers. In October 2020, more than a million people signed Rashford’s petition calling for poor families in England to receive free meals during the school holidays. This initiative would help around 1.7 million children in the UK. Some people such as Fox news host Laura Ingraham have said that it is not the role of sports personalities to speak out, after having told LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble’  following his criticism of Donald Trump’s attitudes on race. However, it is clear that athletes have an incredible platform to actually make a difference, especially with the rise of social media and live viewership, increasing the spread of knowledge. They have respect, influence and a voice that can bring about change for social good. In the correct setting and delivery, the actions of an athlete may be crucial to improve our society.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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