Should sports stars just “shut up and dribble” or should they use their status to try and change the world?

“You could hear a frog piss on cotton,” said the American sprinter, John Carlos. “There’s something awful about hearing 50,000 people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane.” This is how Carlos described the scene when – during the medal ceremony for the 200 metres at the 1968 Mexico Olympics – he and his compatriot Tommie Smith raised their fists in the air and performed the Black Power Salute.

While their names may have not be well known to younger people, the photo of them saluting during the US national anthem is one of sport’s most famous photographs. It caused outrage around the world, in particularly in America where the civil rights movement was at its peak. Martin Luther King, leader of the movement and orator of the “I had a dream” speech, had been murdered just a few months before the Games. This was one of the first examples of athletes doing something that is relatively common today – using their platform and status to show a political message.

Sport and politics have long been intertwined, but where teams and stars were originally used as pawns by governments, the teams and stars now use their own platforms to promote their own views. One of the darkest moments in English football history took place just before a friendly on May 14, 1938. England faced Germany in Berlin and before the game the English team joined the Germans in giving the Nazi salute. They had been asked to do so by the British Government as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempted to keep relations between the two nations as peaceful as possible.

Jesse Owens, another American athlete, had made a stand of his own against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during the 1936 Olympics. Owens, a black Olympian, destroyed the racial stereotype that the Aryan race was superior by winning four gold medals. It has been reported Hitler stormed out of the Olympic Stadium when Owens won his first gold in the 100 metres. Owens managed to make as strong a political statement as any athlete has made by just being the best he could be on the track. His actions were not controversial in their nature, he just disproved a discriminatory, disgusting myth. Owens is the best example of a sports star sending a political message without stepping out of the boundaries of their own sport, and for this he should be celebrated.

But I am just not really sure that the Owens course of action is viable anymore. The issues that are being raised by stars now require a different approach. The National Basketball Association (NBA) and its superstars have become increasingly outspoken on political matters over recent years. This is partly because of the ethnic make-up of the NBA. According to racial inequality activist Richard Lapchkick, 74.2 per cent of the players in the league are black. T-shirts bearing political messages from ‘VOTE’ to ‘I can’t breathe’ have become commonplace. In the NBA ‘bubble’ last year several players chose to replace the names on the back of their shirts with ‘Black Lives Matter’. This incredibly public showing of support for causes does not come from the commissioner of the NBA Adam Silver, and it certainly doesn’t come from the US government. It comes from the players using their platform to raise awareness of issues they believe in.

In 2016 an ESPN podcast featuring basketball superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant showed the two sharing their displeasure about the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Fox News presenter Laura Ingraham launched a savage attack on the pair. “Here’s his [LeBron] barely intelligible, not to mention ungrammatical take on President Trump.” Her tirade didn’t stop there: “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce the ball,” and “This is what happens when you attempt to leave high school a year early to join the NBA.”

This last point I don’t find offensive – I find it amusing. LeBron James joined the NBA from high school since when he has won four NBA titles, four finals MVPs, four regular-season MVPs, has earned an eye-watering amount of money and is in the conversation for the greatest basketball player of all time. Yet, because James was voicing views Ingraham didn’t believe in, she attempted to brand him as some sort of failure. Ingraham ended her impassioned speech with the phrase “shut up and dribble”. Ironically, this has been used in exactly the opposite way she intended and has become a mantra for players who want to speak out. Instead of being discouraged by Ingraham, they’ve become empowered.

When the Premier League season returned from its Covid-induced break last year the players decided to make a statement on racism and the fight for racial inequality. Aston Villa v Sheffield United will be remembered not for what happened during the match, but for what occurred when the referee blew the whistle. Every single player dropped onto one knee and paused for a few seconds. The match was televised around the globe and the move sent out a powerful statement that was backed up by other games in the Premier League, the English Football League and in various leagues around Europe. In every Premier League game for the rest of that season and the 380 games that were played in 2020-21 players took the knee.

While the odd clown on social media has raised their views about why it is not a good thing, the criticism has been confined to just those odd clowns. Fans returning to football matches have created a bigger problem though. Boos have been heard around grounds, although usually drowned out by applause.

Some fans don’t support the taking of the knee because they see it as politics getting involved in football. The Independent reported: “One fan brought up the knee as a wider attempt to Trojan horse Marxism into the country. When pressed on their understanding of Marxism, they did not reply.” Because the knee is a controversial issue for some – although I’m not sure why – players get booed and abused for standing up for something they believe in.

England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford has also stood up for something he believes in as well – feeding school children. Rashford grew up in poverty and thanks to his God-given talent with a football he has been able to raise himself into a position of status. Rashford started a campaign in 2020 to make sure children who are normally entitled to free school meals got their food even when schools were closed due to the pandemic.

He forced the government into two U-turns and made them spend £400 million to support 1.7 million children for the next 12 months. Rashford has donated £20 million to causes this year, becoming the youngest person to top The Sunday Times giving list. Rashford has made a massive political statement and used his status and personal wealth gained from sport to do so. Yet he is not criticised for this in the same way as players who speak so openly about racial inequality – Rashford isn’t shy of doing this, might I add.

Rashford’s former teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as ever, is an outlier. “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do. I play football because I’m the best at playing football. I don’t do politics. If I would be political politician, I would do politics,” he said. The Swedish striker clearly thinks people need to stay in their lane – ironic coming from someone who claims to be the best player in the world having never even come close to winning the Ballon D’Or. If more people followed the Ibrahimovic view, society would be a poorer place. For democracy to truly work you have to hear a variety of voices and people must feel free to raise their concerns about issues.

My point here is this – people don’t mind sports stars getting involved in politics when it’s deemed to be a ‘good cause’, but the moment it is something they don’t believe in, whether it be Laura Ingraham on Fox News or a football fan interviewed by the Independent, they turn on the sports stars and tell them to just “shut up and dribble.”

By Alex Brinton




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