From protesting against Apartheid and terror attacks to supporting Black Lives Matter and Covid relief work, sports icons have never shied away from batting for a cause, inspiring millions of fans to emulate them
By Shriya Roy
In May, the death of 46-year-old African-American George Floyd at the hands of a police officer saw widespread protests and agitations. From bankers and artists to teachers and students, people from all walks of life came together in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The world of sports wasn’t far behind either, as many prominent personalities and teams joined the movement, raising some pertinent questions. Take, for instance, sporting legend Michael Holding. Before the start of a recent Test match between England and West Indies in Southampton, England, the former West Indies cricketer had some powerful words to share about the discrimination the black community faces. Urging society to end racism, he even broke down towards the end of his speech. “If you don’t educate people, they’ll keep growing up in that sort of society and you’ll not get meaningful change,” he said. Later, England and West Indies players went down on one knee before start of play in solidarity with the movement.
Those players, though, aren’t the only ones to have done so. English Premier League players have knelt at the beginning of every match since the league resumed in June in solidarity with the global movement. The players also have ‘Black Lives Matter’ emblazoned across their jerseys in place of their names. Even Formula One drivers took a knee before the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix on July 5. Lewis Hamilton donned a T-shirt with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’, while other drivers wore black T-shirts saying ‘End Racism’. “As individuals, we choose our own way to support a cause. As a group of drivers and a wider F1 family, we are united in this goal,” Formula One said in a statement.
Sporting icons are considered nothing short of mini gods. So when they show support and solidarity with a cause, their words and actions are emulated by millions of fans across the world. It’s no wonder then that oftentimes sports has been the canvas to either foster change or challenge conventional notions. Be it honouring healthcare professionals working to battle coronavirus or wearing black armbands to protest against a terror attack, sportspersons have always come out to play for a cause. And when they join a movement, it sends across a very powerful message, believes Joy Bhattacharjya, CEO, Professional Volleyball League, who was a former team director of the IPL team Kolkata Knight Riders. “In many ways, sports is looked at as something which is very pure. In India especially, the biggest and the most important things are politics, films and sports. Politicians, however, are often looked at with doubt, while movie stars are thought of as larger-than-life characters. For the common man, the most relatable and humane are sports personalities,” he says.
Former Indian cricketer Bishan Singh Bedi agrees. “A sportsperson reaches wherever they are on the basis of pure merit. They have an authenticity attached to them. Therefore, what they say counts… what they do resonates with the masses,” Bedi says.
Match against virus
With the pandemic raging, the sporting community has come together like never before. In recognition of the work of those at the frontlines, England cricket team players wore training shirts before the start of the first Test against West Indies on July 8 that carried names of some key workers—doctors, nurses, teachers—who have been serving the country in the war against the virus. The English Premier League also saw players sporting the National Health Service logo on their jerseys as the matches resumed on June 17, applauding the work done by NHS workers.
In the world of tennis, icon Novak Djokovic had decided to organise an exhibition tournament to raise funds and help those in need during these trying times. Scheduled for June 28, the tournament was, however, cancelled after Djokovic tested positive as a result of all the travel he undertook. A similar case was that of Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi, who travelled across his country for relief work, distributing food and other essentials to people during the lockdown, but was later found to be positive. Both sportspersons are recovering well. The Shahid Afridi Foundation also collected donations from people, including cricketers from across the world.
Closer home, ace Indian shuttler PV Sindhu donated a huge sum to the Chief Minister’s Relief Funds of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to help combat the spread of the virus, while star wrestler Bajrang Punia donated his six months’ salary to the Haryana coronavirus relief fund. Tennis star Sania Mirza, too, raised money to provide food and other basic necessities to the country’s daily wage workers. Other sports personalities like Virat Kohli took to social media to support the government’s initiatives, encouraging people to donate to the Prime Minister’s relief fund. Sporting icons in the country also came forward to support the PM’s call of action to honour health workers during the lockdown. Not just that, many in the sports fraternity, including Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik, Rohit Sharma, Yuvraj Singh, Smriti Mandhana, etc, showed support for the ‘Play for India’ initiative, which seeks to assist those in the sports world whose livelihoods have been threatened due to the suspension of sports activities. “The popularity of sportspersons and athletes is based on their performance. The ability of sportspersons to bring a change is, therefore, extremely strong,” says Bhattacharjya.
This is something that fans can vouch for. Kolkata-based Sayantan Das says that when he watches his football icons do relief work, it makes him want to reflect on what he can do too. “When I see people like Marcus Rashford undertaking relief work, it makes me want to do the little that I can,” says the 20-year-old, who plays club football at the junior level and is preparing to apply for the nationals.
When sportspersons get involved in social initiatives or relief work, it resonates deeply with people across age groups, feels Bhattacharjya. “These are very important gestures and are extremely powerful. When you see your heroes supporting something, coming out in solidarity with something, that issue starts to matter more,” he says.
Sports & politics
The saying goes that one shouldn’t mix sports and politics, but it has often been found that sports can’t stay out of the socio-political debate. It was a sporting boycott, after all, that helped abolish Apartheid in South Africa. The Olympics, too, have a long history of political gestures. One of the most famous such moments was in 1968 when African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a Black Power salute atop the medal podium at the Mexico City Olympics.
The world of sports has seen many such instances. In 2015, American football player Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during the pre-season NFL games in protest against the murder of black people at the hands of the police. His move, which initially caused a controversy, led to a national movement. At the 2003 Cricket World Cup, Zimbabwean players Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wore black armbands to ‘mourn the death of democracy in Zimbabwe’. In India, too, the cricket team wore black armbands in a 2019 match against Australia to condemn the Pulwama terrorist attack. Unlike other sports, though, the expression of protest has been rare in cricket, believes Bedi. “The issues that are being taken up by the sporting community, and especially the cricketing community, are common and prevalent around the world. Their solidarity has shown a lot of conviction though,” he says.
Building brand image
When sporting personalities use their popularity to gain support for different causes, they gain something in return as well: enhanced brand value. The more they connect with the masses, the more their brand grows and improves. As a result, they gain financially, with brand endorsements, partnerships and other projects coming their way. “If a sportsperson like Virat Kohli is putting out a message about wearing a mask, it is going to have a greater impact with the masses. The important bit, however, is that their actions and words, the work they do, initiatives they support should be something they believe in,” cautions Bhattacharjya.
Bedi agrees that it sets a great example when a player or a team takes a stand or works towards an initiative, putting themselves in the line of action. He, however, adds, “The sporting community very soon goes back into the shell and chooses not to speak. I hope that changes.”
It’s true that the sports world can’t ignore the ills ailing society because it is an intrinsic part of it. “One can’t separate sports from the milieu of society it operates in,” says Bhattacharjya.