Why it is important that athletes like Marcus Rashford and Lewis Hamilton be taken seriously when they speak up on important societal issues
Whenever an athlete, and indeed a celebrity in general, makes a public statement about current affairs, there is normally one side that repeats the idea that sportspeople should stick to sport, because that is their job and their job only, or that politics should be kept out of the arts and sports. It is not a coincidence that the people who are most offended by celebrities taking prominent stances on issues disagree most. As discrimination and minority empowerment comes to the fore, it is important that we do not dismiss a person’s experience solely because of their opinion. Athletes are people too. Sports is simply a specific example of an occupation where someone from a BAMER or marginalised background may face discrimination. If an athlete’s fame draws more attention to important issues, that can only be an advantage.
For example, Lewis Hamilton is the first ever, and currently only, black Formula One (F1) driver. He has recently spoken out on Black Lives Matter, and the need to deal with racism and a lack of diversity in Formula One after the murder of George Floyd. Those connected with F1 stayed silent, out of hesitation and discomfort at voicing an opinion, until Hamilton called them out for remaining silent on social media. This discussion has extended to his racing team changing the car’s 2020 livery to black, and F1 management launching inclusivity initiatives. Despite generally being an apolitical sport, drivers even “took the knee” at the first race of the season. Whilst these changes alone support letting athletes voice their opinions, there is also an important flip side to sportspeople remaining silent: it is a privilege to have no concerns of which to speak. It is a type of privilege to be uncomfortable with speaking out about racism from not having faced significant discrimination. It is a type of privilege to not struggle with recalling personal experiences of racism when reports of crimes like the murder of George Floyd happen, as Lewis Hamilton did. It is also a form of microaggression to dismiss anyone’s concerns or stories about racism, such as the former top F1 official Bernie Ecclestone being “surprised that [racism] concerns [Hamilton] even”.
In the US, the only black driver in NASCAR, Bubba Wallace, found a noose in his racing garage after he got the Confederate flag banned from NASCAR events. Someone tried to threaten Wallace with a symbol of lynching from when African Americans were brutally murdered for no reason. The US President responded to reports of this event by publishing a tweet suggesting this was a hoax. In light of these extreme, racist, and dismissive responses to a black athlete simply seeking to remove racist symbols, we should stand strong against those trying cling onto their versions of the past. If athletes are brave enough to try to effect change, we can only listen to what they have to say.
England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford made headlines in June for raising money to get meals to those who need it, and then persuading the government to reverse its original course of action, and maintaining the provision of free meals for children from poorer families. Telling his personal experience of not being to afford enough food, and leveraging his now privileged status to effect change gives a human side to seemingly complex policies, and brings awareness to an important issue that can easily get lost in the news. It is a form of privilege to have no concrete opinion on free school meals from not having been hungry as a result of insufficient funds. It is a form of privilege to be in a position to be able to silence or brush aside others’ concerns. Everyone has the right to tell their story, regardless whether it results in concrete change.
Athletes have the same rights and the same freedom to voice their opinions as any non-athlete. With the popularity of social media and viral news, they have a unique position to draw our attention to pressing concerns, and the struggles of minority communities. It is no coincidence that the examples given here are from athletes from minority backgrounds. It often seems like more of an outlier when a BAMER celebrity speaks out on policy issues, but they should speak out the most to draw attention to their stories, and highlight the stories of marginalised and BAMER communities. Even as normal citizens, we should voice our concerns on behalf of our communities. We, at JAN Trust, understand this importance, and work to encourage and empower marginalised and BAMER individuals. We campaign on vital issues for these communities like online extremism and FGM.