“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.
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.
Sogut was boarding a plane from Frankfurt to London when Ozil contacted him.
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”.
“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 for
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.
Sports stars have long used their status to make political points, but that seems to be happening more and more lately.
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.
One thing in particular makes the current situation extremely different: social media.
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.
For many children, lunch at school is the only meal they will have… https://t.co/UJu8C7Urxr
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) November 11, 2021
But having a broad social media reach isn’t enough on its own to change government policy, says campaign expert Jo Tanner.
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.
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.
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)