Why Must Athletes Be Seen, But Not Heard?

How many Politicians have used sport to try and win favour with voters?

Those who remember the Sydney Olympics will recall how then Prime Minister John Howard was like and Australian version of “Where’s Wally.” Except rather than wearing a red and white striped shirt he would be sat with his Australian gold shirt, or coat.

In England former Prime Minister John Major was like Howard a Cricket tragic and was frequently heard on air during a Test Match in London. He claimed to be a Chelsea fan but few believed him, whereas Tony Blair professed to being a Newcastle United fan, Gordon Brown a Raith Rovers fan and David Cameron an Aston Villa fan. Of course it may be coincidence, but the same team as Prince William.

Now some of these may be genuine sports fans, but with some politicians it just beggars belief that they actually follow let alone support a team. Yet sport frequently indulges them using a team or a code for political gain.

So why is it that people and in particular politicians get so hot under the collar when sportsmen and women air a political opinion or make a political statement with their actions?

Is it because before the dawn of the professional athlete, sportsmen and women had much lesser profiles, or that many came from humble backgrounds and were earning so little that few were going to put those earnings in jeopardy by speaking up or speaking out?

Of course that is doing many athletes from the past a disservice as there were many who spoke out and put their careers at risk. Peter Norman who won the silver medal in the famous 200m Final at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico wore a badge on the podium in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights while Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists in a Black power salute. It has since transpired that Norman advised them to wear one glove each as John Carlos left his pair of gloves in the changing room.

Norman believed in Human Rights and made a small gesture to support his fellow athletes, yet he paid a heavy price. He never ran in the Olympics again. He was not selected for the Olympic Games in Munich four years later despite turning in adequate times. Three decades later he was not even invited to 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney by the Australian Olympic Committee.

At the same Olympic Games Czech Gymnast Věra Čáslavská also protested, but her protest was for different reasons. Having publicly voiced her strong opposition to Soviet-style Communism and the Soviet invasion of her homeland, Czechoslovakia, she was only granted permission to compete at the last minute.

At the Games she suffered in her event. After she appeared to have won the gold medal on floor outright, the judging panel curiously upgraded the preliminary scores of Soviet Larisa Petrik, and announced that there was a tie for the gold medal. Earlier there had been another controversial judging decision that cost Čáslavská the gold on beam. The Gold went instead to Soviet rival Natalia Kuchinskaya. Čáslavská protested during both medal ceremonies by quietly turning her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem.

Despite winning the adoration of the people for her stance, the powers that be were far from happy. On her return to Czechoslovakia she was deprived the right to travel abroad and also was not allowed to participate in public sporting events. Čáslavská was effectively forced into retirement.

There have been plenty of other athletes who have made political statements, Muhammed Ali is another that stands out and who paid a heavy price missing the prime days of his career, but refusing to fight in Vietnam. Their motives have in the main been honourable. They have believed in something so strongly that they felt they had a moral right to take a stand and use their visibility to convey a message. Yet to many in political power, and at the top of the various sports their opinions and views did not matter. They are and were embarrassing. Today, they bring the game into disrepute? How?

It is ironic how sporting codes happily use athletes to tick a box and try and show that they have a moral compass when one round of fixtures will be linked to a particular social cause, such as ‘the fight obesity round.’

When did athletes start to find the courage to speak out?

Maybe the sand started to shift in the 1950’s when athletes started to be paid big money. In 1949 Joe di Maggio became the first baseball to be paid in excess of USD$100,000. Here was a man who never finished school and sold newspapers to earn a living, and worked in an orange juice plant. This was a significant moment in sport as in this year di Maggio’s wages were the same as the President of the United States!

In 2016 one of the USA’s most talented athletes Colin Kaepernick sat down during the playing of the National Anthem during the San Francisco 49ers third preseason game. He had sat during the first two games, but because he was not dressed to play it had gone unnoticed. He explained his position post match by saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” He stated that he would continue to protest until he felt like that the the American flag represented “what it’s supposed to represent.”

Kaepernick stood by his beliefs. He began kneeling during the playing of the U.S. national anthem prior to games in protest to what Kaepernick believed to be “systematic oppression against black Americans.” He chose to kneel as he felt that this was the most respectful way of protesting. He was joined by other black athletes. To back up his belief Kaepernick pledged to donate one million dollars to “organizations working in oppressed communities.”

Not surprisingly like Muhammed Ali before, he split the nation. In one survey 32% of caucasian NFL fans hated him, yet 42% of black fans ‘liked him a lot.” His shirt became the highest selling shirt in the NFL; yet many fans went on social media with film of them burning the shirt. He received death threats, but worse than that for corporate American the viewing figures for the NFL started to decline.

In September of this year the President of the USA, Donald Trump, allegedly against advice given, went on Twitter to berate Kaepernick and his supporters and he told NFL clubs to sack or suspend players who failed to stand for the National anthem. His comments had the opposite effect with players and teams uniting against Trump’s comments. Some teams locked arms, others remained in the locker room during the playing of the anthem.

Most Politicians know when it is wise to stay quiet and keep away from sports. Lyndon Johnson remained hushed on Muhammed Ali’s protest against Vietnam. Unlike Trump, it was Kaepernick who remained silent.

Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers, which was an option in his restructured contract. Ranked as one of the best quarter-backs in the NFL he no doubt thought that he would be high on many club’s wanted list. When the start of the 2017 season came around he was without a club. Many have speculated as to why. The man himself filed a grievance against the NFL claiming the owners had colluded to keep him out of the league.

There are many who feel that this is the most likely outcome. With falling attendances being blamed on his stance, TV stations would have been getting the jitters on whether they would make money on their investment, the club owners would be worried that their incomes too would be affected.

Sadly in much of the buzz around the NFL the real reason for the protest has been lost, that Kaepernick and his fellow players were protesting against the systemic oppression and, more specifically, as he said repeatedly, police brutality toward black people.

He very wisely chose not to respond to his President’s tweets. Which made his voice all the more stronger.

Athletes have a voice now. With fans now following athletes over teams they have a very powerful voice. With social media they have fans they can communicate to immediately. They have the power to convey powerful messages to society.

In one breath we want them to be role models and set an example to the next generation, but judging by the way many are treated when they take on real everyday issues that often politicians fail to address, these athletes have suddenly have ‘gone above their station.’ They are out of line. They have brought the sport into disrepute. They are not allowed to support causes and speak out on those causes, while the very sports they play for frequently pay lip service to any manner of cause.

As fans, clubs and broadcasters we cannot have it both ways. We cannot enjoy these superstars and expect those with a conscience to park it at the door, simply because it may make a few people uncomfortable.

Yet sadly just as many sports stars will simply do what they have to do and say nothing just to survive in what is a cut-throat business, so too many of the media will not cross the line and speak up when their voice needs to be heard. Instead they opt to stay on side with the powers that be so that they continue to get invited to the end of season party. How many have the courage to speak out when they know that things are not right? How many are happy to turn a blind eye?

There will always be those who will stand up and be heard, there will always be those who will stand alongside them in support, but who may not want to be heard, but simply by their actions lend strong support. But should these leaders be vilified? Should sports stars be crucified for having an opinion or caring about other issues in society?

If they are politicising sport, which is often the accusation levelled at them, what are sports doing by allowing Politicians to be photographed and filmed with players during election campaigns or when funding is needed?

Funnily enough it was the former President of the United States Ronald Reagan who probably summed this situation up best when he said “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realise that bears a very close resemblance to the first.”

However that does not answer the question as to why we tolerate Politicians using sport to gain Political favour, but seem so agitated when our athletes stand up for everyday issues that our politicians won’t address. When will we face the facts that today’s athletes thanks to the money in professional sport have been able to gain a greater education that their predecessors. They are no longer serfs to some rich master. Many are educated, intelligent people and they have every right to air their opinions if they feel the desire. It is up to us individually if we wish to listen and not for others to try and silence them.

Why Must Athletes Be Seen, But Not Heard?
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