It really feels like sports star activism has been supercharged in the last couple of years, with the Black Lives Matter and Rainbow Laces campaigns and football’s support for Ukraine.
Two years ago I left behind the world of political journalism in Westminster to report on football at The Athletic, but increasingly these two universes are blurring together.
From the oligarchs and oil states who own clubs, to the aborted European Super League, political dilemmas and parliamentary machinations are an unavoidable part of the sporting conversation these days.
At the same time, sports stars themselves can shift public opinion and even change government policy, as I discovered in a documentary I made for BBC Radio 4.
Marcus Rashford exploded onto the football 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’s become a household name and MBE for his work off the field, campaigning on child hunger, which he faced growing up in Wythenshawe in Manchester.
In 2020 he publicly challenged the government, imploring ministers to offer free meals to needy children in the school holidays.
Kelly Hogarth, who represents Rashford as well as Raheem Sterling, is helping these England superstars in their careers off the pitch, from sponsorship deals to charity work.
“My role was advising on where he should be talking, and how we deliver the story in the most effective way,” she says. “How you leverage these modern forms of media, which is your social media channels, and ultimately you’re asking questions of members of parliament.”
Hogarth has swapped the world of high fashion for football, recognising that, in Europe especially, athletes often have an even higher profile than actors and actresses. This means sports stars have a huge reach for selling things, but also, for pushing 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 the world’s Muslims. Unlike Rashford’s carefully planned attempt to change government policy, a dramatic move by Ozil in 2019 initially came as a surprise to his agent.
Sogut was boarding a plane from Frankfurt back to London when Ozil contacted him.
After putting the potential consequences to his client, Ozil said he wanted to carry on regardless, and the Instagram post was drafted by the team, then sent out into the world.
Although the post attracted adulation from many fans, especially Muslims, the reaction from China — who have consistently denied mistreating Uighur Muslims in the country — was fierce. His club distanced themselves from the comments, putting out a statement saying “Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics”.
“What I said was not against Chinese people, it was against whoever is doing this to the Uighur Muslims and other people who are not helping them, such as other Muslim countries,” Ozil said in an interview with The Athletic in August 2020.
“I have given a lot to Arsenal, on and off the pitch, so the reaction was disappointing. They said they don’t get involved in politics but this isn’t politics and they have got involved in other issues.”
Ozil and Rashford’s campaigns, while very different, both had a huge impact. Rashford played a direct role in changing UK government policy, while Ozil is known globally fo
Shaka Hislop, now an analyst for US sports broadcaster ESPN, co-founded the organisation Show Racism The Red Card. He traces the story back to one incident shortly after he was signed as a goalkeeper for Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side, which he says sums up his “dual existence” as an athlete and campaigner.
Sports stars have long used their status to make political points but it seems to be happening more and more of late.
She works hard to make sure her clients have career options after sport, and says there is a big emphasis now on making hay when the sun shines, exploring as many opportunities as possible — as well as making money — when a player’s career is at its peak.
One thing in particular makes the current situation hugely 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 be reading.
For many children, lunch at school is the only meal they’ll get… https://t.co/UJu8C7Urxr
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) November 11, 2021
But having a vast social media reach isn’t enough in itself to shift government policy, says campaigns expert Jo Tanner.
There is a key distinction between the Ozil and Rashford campaigns. Rashford’s may have been about child poverty but it had a clear, tangible demand — in Tanner’s words, a clear “ask” — while Ozil’s took on a massive complex geopolitical issue with a vaguer demand for action.
Is it worth players risking their careers for these deep problems that can’t be fixed with a wave of a minister’s pen? Hislop says it is.
Players have more and more power, not just to make money and build their celebrity, but to shift the dial on topical events, or put pressure on government ministers. But some question whether it’s actually the players themselves who are behind their campaigns, or whether those in the shadows are doing their bidding.
We still hear, however, hear relatively little from top footballers about the massive political issues hanging over the sport.
Not only the World Cup later this year in Qatar, where there are continuing allegations of human rights abuses, but also controversy around Premier League ownership, from Roman Abramovich at Chelsea to Saudi Arabia’s involvement at Newcastle United.
Last year, Norway’s players wore T-shirts saying “Human rights on and off the pitch” to show support for Qatar migrant workers but David Beckham agreed a deal worth around £36 million over three years to smile for the cameras as the country’s ambassador.
This is not to say that players like Rashford and Ozil, who already champion important causes, should be expected to take on yet more on top of their day jobs. But, for now, some topics really do still feel out of bounds.
Could that change?
Maybe, because the direction of travel feels only one way — the worlds of sport and politics are only going to get closer, with outspoken athletes, smartphones in hand, at the heart of the conversation.
Sports Star is a documentary for BBC Radio 4 presented by Joey D’Urso and produced by Beth Sagar-Fenton.
(Top photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)