How much can protest in sport change racist attitudes?

By Robbie Sweeten

In the wake of Jacob Blake being shot seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the sporting world reacted nearly instantaneously.

When the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic of the NBA refused to attend their playoff game, it ignited a chain reaction of sporting protest across the United States. Major leagues in baseball, tennis, soccer and women’s basketball all postponed games in solidarity with Jacob Blake.

In the aftermath of any show of activism by key figures in the sporting world, some critics, even media outlets, are often quick to point out its futility. The very involvement of sport in the political playground inevitably leads to criticism that sporting protests are futile in creating change at a federal level.

But for one, sport and politics are inextricably linked. More importantly, sport has a crucial role to play in relaying social change — and even in fostering it.

A short history of sporting protest 

It is hard to track the impact of protest in a direct, linear way, however sporting protest has always succeeded in providing new perspectives.

Muhammed Ali famously stood up against the slaughter in the Vietnam War in his refusal to be drafted into the US Army. He was stripped of his heavyweight title, found guilty of draft evasion and the majority of the polls at the time even disagreed with his refusal. But in the long run for Ali’s career, his intransigence and bold moral fibre debatably made him more of an appealing figure to Americans, especially as opposition to Vietnam intensified in the 1970s and 1980s.

Recognised across the globe, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute at the 1968 Olympics is yet another prime example. After securing places on the podium of the 200m race, they raised their gloved fists to protest against racial injustice. Yet as was the case with Ali, the athletes were castigated by the press, booed by the crowd at the time, and suspended from US track field. However, this moment has become ingrained in sports history, so much so that Sports Illustrated has labelled it the most reproduced image in the history of the Olympics.

A more recent protesting history

In the past few years, we have seen similar reactions to another athlete protesting racial inequality. In 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee during the national anthem in protest against racial injustice and police brutality. With Trump decrying the gesture as unpatriotic, he was driven out of the league.

However, the gesture has become symbolic of protests directed at police brutality and racial discrimination across the world. Even in the UK – after the Premier League resumed – players took a knee before the start of every fixture.

Even though protests like these cannot always guarantee immediate change, it has the capacity to attract the world’s attention. And so it has; fans, club owners, sponsors and politicians across the world are rapt in the strikes and grievances of athletes in America.

How can these protests be successful?

Sport has traditionally consisted of and relied on the relationship between product and consumer, but the industry is no longer so solely business-orientated.

Before the times of Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, sport and politics seldom mixed. With the introduction and evolution of social media, however, the rise of sports superstars with their millions of followers behind them has shifted the power balance.

Although there is still hierarchy within every team (where there are always those at the top with the power to sack and suspend their players), quick dismissal is not always feasible. Considering the current climate in sport – in which more athletes than ever are voicing their opinions on racial injustice – it will make it even harder for owners to take such action.

Club owners are subject to mass criticism when they try to suppress a player’s right to free speech, losing huge economic assets, as well as indirectly (and more importantly) revealing their own biases and political viewpoints. There is little doubt that the players hold the power right now. But what are sporting associations doing to support the protesting individuals who also rake in the cash for the club?

Sporting institutions stand up to racism

The NBA and NBPA (National Basketball Players’ Association) have released a joint statement in response to the strikes by declaring the following:  

  • The establishment of a social justice coalition – including representatives from players, coaches and governors – which focuses on “increased access to voting, promoting civic engagement and, advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform”
  • In every city where the league franchise owns and controls the arena property, it will operate as a “voting location for the 2020 general election”
  • The league will work with players and its network partners “to create and include advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement”

As the official response by the NBA, it details that playoff games were to resume on Saturday 29 August. The NBA has done their bit of sorts; what else can be done from other sports?

Action is expected from the NFL, which, like basketball, has a demographic of majority Black players with White owners. As is the same across the pond, with football in the UK.

Can the UK sports industry do more?

Such activism cannot be limited to almost exclusively American sports; various UK sports industries have a very valuable role to play. Currently, the institution that is British football lacks a group of trailblazing players proactively campaigning for racial equality; players who are willing to sacrifice their sponsors and salary to fight for causes larger than themselves.

Although some top league players, such as Danny Rose, have indeed been actively outspoken on this complex and ingrained issue, the lack of sustained support from the FA perhaps restricts how much they can realistically do. After all, it is not only the work of players which will change perceptions. While the group of trailblazing players is needed as the face of such movements within UK football, the whole burden arguably should not fall on them. Especially given that the sport has, in recent history, been based on the relationship between many Black players’ performance providing profit for White club owners.

Even though the Premier League may have put messages condemning racism on the players’ shirts and invited players to kneel before every game, this was a reactionary rather than proactive campaigning. Additionally, as we head into the 2020/21 Premier League soon, players have stopped taking a knee; as though the pandemic of racism has passed, or worse, is no longer relevant.

Given its reach, football is leaps and bounds ahead of any sport. With a reach that could be utilised to spread awareness of (and help contextualise) racial discrimination, it can encourage protest when necessary and thus normalise the relationship between sport and politics. And such unashamed activism within the sport could be critical in pushing the fight against racial discrimination many steps forward.

For example, the NBA’s board of governors agreed in early August to pledge $300 million over the next ten years to Black communities. While the amount is comparatively minuscule to the combined net worth of the league’s 15 richest owners (over $120 billion), it remains symbolic of basketball’s activism transcending the sport. Maybe it is time for football to follow a similar path.

Why sport can mitigate racial injustice

Racial inequality is such a seismic issue that it cannot, of course, be shifted by one athlete, one team, one league, one sport; it requires effort at every level of society. Nonetheless, sport not only influences much of the world’s cultures but the attention it attracts also makes it impossible for politicians to ignore.

However, here is where the symbiotic relationship between consumer and producer in sport is crucial. Even though players may strike and protest, sport is intrinsically reliant on the support of fans and consumers. And the moment fans and consumers become actively concerned with the grievances of the players, change is not only possible, but inevitable.

The strikes in the past weeks may have timeless ramifications on sport forever. The Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic shifted the paradigm of power, placing it no longer in the hands of the owners, but the players.

They alone cannot strike forever. Help is needed from owners, sponsors, league officials, league presidents, business partners, politicians, and us.

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