A wave of activism swept across the sporting world in 2020 as a new generation of increasingly confident athletes found their voices to champion social justice initiatives on an unprecedented scale.
From LeBron James spearheading an effort to boost voter turnout in US elections to Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford successfully pressuring the British government to provide free meals for schoolchildren, athletes immersed themselves in causes and campaigns as never before.
The killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd during his arrest by police in Minneapolis in May proved to be a catalyst for change, prompting athletes from multiple sports to speak out against systemic racism and police brutality.
Los Angeles Lakers superstar James was among the first to condemn Floyd’s killing as protests erupted in all 50 American states. “Why doesn’t America love us too?” James asked in one of several posts on social media.
James, a longtime civil rights and social justice activist, said Floyd’s death reinforced the validity of protests launched by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, who was vilified for kneeling during pre-game renditions of the US national anthem as a way of protesting racial injustice.
In June, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated bluntly that the league had been wrong not to listen to players who had protested systemic racism, but did not mention Kaepernick by name.
Kaepernick’s “take the knee” protest was adopted as a gesture of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by athlete activists and demonstrators around the world.
When a global sporting calendar upended by the coronavirus pandemic gradually resumed, “taking a knee” and other displays of support of Black Lives Matter had become part of the established pre-game ritual, from European soccer leagues to North American sports.
Here to stay
In the United States, athlete activism looks to be here to stay.
The NBA wholeheartedly embraced social justice campaigns when the pandemic-interrupted 2019-2020 season resumed in Orlando in July, with players kneeling before each game during the US national anthem and “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on each court. NBA players, many of whom had taken part in street protests after Floyd’s killing, wore jerseys with social justice messages when play resumed.
Similar initiatives were adopted by Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball while dozens of National Hockey League players also spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter.
In the conservative world of NASCAR, Black driver Bubba Wallace raced in a Black Lives Matter-themed car in June, and led ultimately successful calls for the sport to ban the Confederate flag – viewed by many as a racist symbol – from its venues.
While the first wave of protests crested in June following Floyd’s death, athlete activism surged again in August following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their NBA game 3 days after Blake’s shooting, a move that triggered similar walkouts in sports including soccer, women’s basketball, and baseball.
The WTA and ATP tennis tours suspended play for a day as the boycott spread. Japan’s Naomi Osaka wore different face masks bearing the names of victims of racial injustice during her victorious US Open campaign.
The upsurge in athlete activism forced sporting bodies across the globe to rethink their attitudes towards protests in ways that could have a lasting impact.
Just the start
While protests by players have traditionally been frowned upon, 2020 witnessed a marked shift in perspective by some of sport’s most powerful ruling bodies.
When the prospect of disciplinary proceedings was raised against 4 players in Germany’s Bundesliga over their on-field messages of support for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, football’s world governing body FIFA moved swiftly to soften its position.
Although FIFA had previously outlawed players from displaying political, religious, or personal messages, it said organizers should now take a “common sense” approach and consider “context” before weighing sanctions.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino went further when commenting on the German cases.
“For the avoidance of doubt, in a FIFA competition the recent demonstrations of players in Bundesliga matches would deserve an applause and not a punishment,” he said.
“We all must say no to racism and any form of discrimination. We all must say no to violence. Any form of violence.”
Most strikingly, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee potentially put itself on a collision course with the International Olympic Committee ahead of next year’s rescheduled Tokyo Olympics by announcing it would no longer sanction athletes who demonstrate in “support of racial and social justice for all human beings.”
“The silencing of athletes during the Games is in stark contrast to the importance of recognizing participants in the Games as humans first and athletes second,” the USOPC’s council wrote in a December 10 statement.
“Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values.”
The new USOPC stance was in stark contrast to the organization’s position in 2019, when US fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry were reprimanded for protests on the medal podium at the Pan American Games in Lima.
The IOC, meanwhile, has yet to determine a clear policy on how it plans to deal with athlete protests at next year’s Olympics, more than half a century after US sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith were kicked out of the 1968 Mexico Games for their iconic Black Power salutes on the medal podium.
The IOC has said it will canvass opinion amongst athletes before making any changes to existing rules which expressly forbid protests.
Mexico ’68 icon Carlos, meanwhile, looked on approvingly at 2020’s year of activism. “This is just the start of things to come. We have their attention,” he told NBC in September. – Rappler.com
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