How do we reconcile knowledge of the injustices in many sports with the enjoyment of being a spectator?
As we enjoy the familiar tradition of a summer of sport — albeit with some restrictions still in place — it’s worth reflecting on how this fits in with the strong push for fairer practices and equal treatment of minorities that we have seen in the last few years.
In what can sometimes, by default, be seen as an exploitative practice, athletes are often expected to be devoid of strong feelings outside of the pure passion that underlies their sporting prowess, whether with regards to mental health or societal injustices.
The issues within many sports are well-documented.
Formula One has been beset with debates on how best to mark solidarity with antiracism and whether it can legitimately profess to be a sport that holds equality dear whilst allowing a driver with a very chequered personal past — which includes sexual harassment and physical assault — on this year’s grid.
English football was caught up in a debate on the ‘appropriateness’ of the men’s national team players taking the knee before Euro 2020 matches, and the apparent hypocrisy of some supporters both celebrating goals scored by Black players and criticising their antiracism stances. The continued problem of online abuse suffered by many players — Black players in particular — is, unfortunately, as prevalent as ever.
Tennis associations and tournament organisers are under pressure to address the impact of the sport itself and post-match interviews on players’ mental health. The gender pay gap within tennis and misogynoir levelled most infamously against Serena Williams are perennial issues that do not seem to have at all gone away. Wimbledon showed us that there is still plenty of work to be done, particularly on mental health.
Both motorsports and football have also been beset with controversies about holding competitions in countries with dubious human rights records — and allowing these countries to financially benefit from the attention without apparently addressing the proverbial elephant in the room.
So, how do we incorporate trying to achieve positive change in society, whether through equality or reforming traditional practices, with our roles as sports fans? Can we?
It goes without saying that, unlike many social issues, international sport is not an area where we individuals can have much power, if any at all. Spectators are not personally responsible for the conduct of the athletes and the organisers of the competitions they watch.
We do, however, have responsibility for our personal conduct and have the power to effect change through collective action — whether specifically as fans or through the values we force our athletes to espouse. As individuals, we must be conscious of not engaging in any discriminatory practices, even if they are now sadly somewhat part and parcel of the sport’s culture, and doing our part to speak out when do we witness others doing so.
It takes practice, but we can begin to re-evaluate the traditions and principles that we think should apply in the sports we watch. Should we really be spouting abuse at our opponents? Can we really both cheer athletes on when they do well and tell them to be quiet when they speak out on issues affecting society?
There is no easy answer to how spectators should address the problems inherent in the sports we watch, but what is clear is that we cannot be satisfied to do nothing apart from sitting in from of our TVs or devices to be entertained.
We at JAN Trust stand against all forms of exploitation and injustice in society, and make a conscious effort every day to re-evaluate the biases and values we hold. Through our holistic approach to strengthening communities, we know the power of working together to effect change, beginning from the grassroots level. If we begin challenging attitudes on the individual level, sustained change will move upwards to the group and international levels.
We have every right to seek escape and pleasure in sport, but we should not forget about the rights of the workers and athletes involved in these sports.