“What do I want to defend here?” : why footballers and politics are more linked than ever


It really does feel like sports star activism has been supercharged over the past couple of years, with the Black Lives Matter and Rainbow Laces campaigns and football’s support for Ukraine.

Two years ago I left political journalism in Westminster to report on football in Athleticismbut more and more these two worlds merge.

From the oligarchs and oil states that own clubs to the aborted European Super League, political dilemmas and parliamentary machinations are part and parcel of the sporting conversation these days.

At the same time, sports stars themselves can change public opinion and even change government policy, as I discovered in a documentary I made for BBC Radio 4.

Marcus Rashford exploded onto the footballing scene in 2016 aged just 18, scoring on his Manchester United and England debuts before becoming one of the country’s most exciting prospects. But he became a household name and MBE for his work off the pitch, campaigning against child hunger, which he faced growing up at Wythenshawe in Manchester.

In 2020 he publicly challenged the government, imploring ministers to provide free meals to needy children during school holidays.

Rashford’s school meals campaign has had a huge impact (Photo: FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Kelly Hogarth, who represents Rashford as well as Raheem Sterling, helps these England superstars with their careers off the pitch, from sponsorship deals to charity work.

“My role was to advise him on where he should speak and how to deliver the story in the most effective way,” she says. “How do you tap into these modern forms of media, which are your social media channels, and ultimately ask MPs questions.”

Hogarth swapped the world of high fashion for football, acknowledging that, in Europe in particular, athletes often have an even higher profile than actors and actresses. This means that sports stars have enormous reach to sell things, but also to advance social and political causes.

Erkut Sogut worked with a very different player on a very different campaign. He represents Mesut Ozil, who played for Arsenal and Real Madrid and won the World Cup with Germany in 2014.

Ozil’s family background is Turkish, and over time he has become increasingly outspoken about the plight of Muslims around the world. Unlike Rashford’s carefully planned attempt to change government policy, a dramatic move by Ozil in 2019 initially caught his agent by surprise.

“He just told me, with regard to the Uighur Muslims in China, ‘I’ve now seen enough to come out and say something,’” Sogut says. “’I’ve seen documentaries and what happens there. I want to say something about it”.

Sogut was boarding a plane from Frankfurt to London when Ozil contacted him.

“I say, are you sure? Let’s talk about it, because I was just thinking about the consequences of making this post. JDuring the whole flight, I was taking notes, what can happen? What will Arsenal say? What will the media say?

After laying out the potential consequences to his client, Ozil said he wanted to continue regardless, and the Instagram post was drafted by the team and then sent out into the world.

Although the post drew adulation from many fans, especially Muslims, the reaction from China – which has always denied abusing Uyghur Muslims in the country – has been fierce. His club distanced themselves from the comments, issuing a statement saying “Arsenal have always adhered to the principle of not getting involved in politics”.

Mesut Ozil, Arsenal

Ozil’s post caught many off guard (Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

“What I said was not against the Chinese people, it was against anyone who does this to Uyghur Muslims and other people who don’t help them, like other Muslim countries,” Ozil said in a statement. an interview with Athleticism in August 2020.

“I’ve given a lot to Arsenal, on and off the pitch, so the reaction has been disappointing. They said they don’t get involved in politics, but that’s not politics and they are involved in other problems.

Ozil’s and Rashford’s campaigns, although very different, both had a huge impact. Rashford played a direct role in shaping British government policy, while Ozil is known around the world forr be candid about human rights issues, especially those who face Muslims in China, India and Palestine.

Shaka Hislop, now an analyst for the American sports broadcaster ESPN, co-founded the organization Show Racism The Red Card. He traces the story of an incident shortly after being signed as a goalkeeper for Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side, which he says sums up his “double existence” as an athlete and an activist.

“I was outside St James’ Park when it happened, refueling late at night,” he says. “A group of young people come down the hill and start shouting racial slurs at me. As they got closer, one of the kids recognized who I was and they started chanting my name and asking for autographs.

Sports stars have long used their status to make political points, but that seems to be happening more and more lately.

Hogarth says: “For a lot of players, I think during COVID-19 it was the first time they had to stop and probably reminisce about how far they’ve come and the struggles they’ve been through – and that their parents had experienced – and actually just rethinking. What am I trying to defend here?

She works hard to ensure her clients have career options after sports, and says it’s now important to make hay when the sun is shining, to explore as many opportunities as possible – as well as to win. money – when a player’s career is at its peak. Peak.

“Twenty or twenty-five years ago, a player was just a player; he didn’t even have a voice to come out and talk,” Sogut says. “Today it has changed so much – the players are the important part of this business. Players become even more powerful when their contract runs out. They can leave whenever they want. The clubs no longer have this power. It makes players so powerful.

One thing in particular makes the current situation extremely different: social media.

These days, when an athlete or public figure tweets or posts on Instagram, “it gets picked up everywhere,” Hogarth says. “The ability to convey a message is phenomenal.”

Working with Rashford on his campaign, it wasn’t just the posts themselves that they had to think about, but where to post them and who might read them.

“Our main communication channel at that time was Twitter,” she says. “It’s the only social platform that all MPSs (members of the UK parliament) are present on”.

But having a broad social media reach isn’t enough on its own to change government policy, says campaign expert Jo Tanner.

“Get the request to the right is really, really important,” says Tanner. “There are people who have tried to talk about the issues and in fact what they have done is kind of overcame the issue. They asked for something that is potentially unrealistic.

“You have to understand what the levers are to actually get something done, and that’s where people like Marcus Rashford have been smart enough to hone in on a particular problem very precisely and ask for something very specific to be done.”

There is a key distinction between the Ozil and Rashford campaigns. Rashford’s may have been in regards to child poverty, but there was a clear and tangible demand – in Tanner’s words, a clear ‘demand’ – while Ozil’s tackled a complex and massive geopolitical problem with a demand for more action. vague.

Is it worth players risking their careers for these deep-seated issues that cannot be solved with the flick of a minister’s pen? Hislop says yes.

Players have more and more power, not only to earn money and build their fame, but also to change the dial on current events or lobby government ministers. But some wonder if it’s really the players themselves who are behind their campaigns, or if those behind the scenes are doing their bidding.

“I think if you met my clients, there’s no way they were puppets,” Hogarth says. “If they have an opinion and they feel like it’s a valued opinion and it’s something they’ve considered, they’re going to say it.

“No one is going to tell them what they can and can’t do,” she adds, referring to the issues and causes players are concerned about.

However, we still hear relatively few top footballers talk about the huge political issues plaguing the sport.

Not only the World Cup later this year in Qatar, where allegations of human rights abuses continue, but also the controversy around Premier League ownership, from Roman Abramovich at Chelsea to the involvement of Saudi Arabia to Newcastle United.


Erling Haaland of Norway warms up ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Turkey in March 2021 (Photo: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Last year, Norwegian players wore ‘Human rights on and off the pitch’ t-shirts to show their support for migrant workers from Qatar, but David Beckham struck a one-off deal. worth around £36million over three years to smile for the cameras as the country’s ambassador.

That’s not to say players like Rashford and Ozil, who are already championing important causes, should take on even more and more of their day-to-day work. But, for now, some topics seem really off limits.

Could this change?

Perhaps, because the direction of travel only seems to be one-way – the worlds of sport and politics will only come closer together, with outspoken athletes, smartphones in hand, at the heart of the conversation.

Sports Star is a BBC Radio 4 documentary presented by Joey D’Urso and produced by Beth Sagar-Fenton.

(Top photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

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