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The history (and evolution) of athlete activism

Sports stars are increasingly using their huge personal platforms to speak out about injustice, even if sometimes their sponsors would prefer them not to. Simon Oliveira, the sport and entertainment specialist who has worked with the likes of David Beckham, Usain Bolt, Neymar Jr and Liam Payne, examines the rise of athlete activism, and what it means for brand partners.

Athletes around the world have been central to the global outpouring of emotion since the senseless death of George Floyd.

In times of tragedy and injustice, the power of social media is never more evident. Since that fateful day, almost every globally recognised sportsperson has taken to their personal platforms to express their thoughts and feelings on the endemic racism that still exists in society. Anger has now turned to activism.

Athlete activism is not a new phenomenon of course. Even back in 1966, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the US military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. This led to a three-and-a-half-year hiatus from the sport as he was denied a boxing license in every US state and stripped of his passport.

This incident was followed by one of the most symbolic moments in sports history when Tommie Smith and John Carlos delivered a Black Power salute on the medal rostrum at the Mexico ‘68 Olympics. At the time, the Olympic Games was by far the biggest global platform for an athlete due to its worldwide media exposure, led by the advent of colour television coverage. Carlos and Smith were expelled from the Games, ostracised for their actions and received death threats on their return to the United States.

Fast forward 50 years and athletes are now publishing titans with bigger personal followings, reach and influence than most traditional media and many of the brands that endorse them. Culturally, however, it feels like we are at a very similar age to that of the aforementioned events and the counterculture generation of the late 60s early 70s. But, the journey to a point where athletes feel empowered to share their sentiments in such an open and honest way, has been a long one.

The experiences of Ali, Carlos and Smith – and countless other athletes unafraid to voice their opinions to media who were willing to tell their story – led to a wall of silence for many that followed, who became increasingly wary of the professional recriminations.

In addition, during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as commercial interests in sport grew and media began covering off-field stories as well as on, sport stars and celebrities became front page news. Consequently, many athletes started to protect themselves by sanitising their public views. The assumption was that to attract endorsements and appease clubs, leagues and commercial partners athletes were increasingly wary of having a voice on cultural, political or societal issues and tended to stick to sport.

Michael Jordan is a very relevant example of this apolitical approach and the subject was revisited in Netflix and ESPN’s 'The Last Dance' documentary, which reflected on the time Jordan failed to publicly endorse Harvey Gantt, the African-American former Democratic mayor of Charlotte, in his racially contentious Senate race versus Republican Jesse Helms.

“Republicans buy sneakers, too,” was the line Jordan famously used by way of explanation at the time. He clarified his position during the documentary stating activism is just not in his nature: “Was that selfish? Probably,” he admits. “But that’s where my energy was.” Having released a statement (via social media) regarding George Floyd’s untimely death and subsequently pledged to donate $100 million over the next 10 years to racial equality and social justice causes, it appears his stance has now changed significantly.

George Floyd’s tragic death has been the catalyst for the global Black Lives Matter movement, but the efforts of athletes to call-out racially motivated injustices had already begun to reach a crescendo.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick first took the knee with his position supported and endorsed by his sponsor, Nike. In 2018, LeBron James was told to “shut up and dribble” by a Fox News host, and subsequently launched UNINTERRUPTED, his own athlete empowerment brand. Last year, Raheem Sterling challenged the British media’s perception of black players and has taken a lead in calling out racism in football.

Athletes have never held more influence in their hands. Many have exceptional spokespeople who have a natural gift for storytelling that plays out on their social media platforms. Unlike other socially constructed media celebrities, for example, the Kardashian-Jenners, who share the rarefied air of 100 million followers or more, not all sportspeople are comfortable in the social media spotlight. Let's not forget, these are professional athletes first and foremost and that defines them. Some enlist the services of support teams to help manage these assets. Others simply choose not to engage at all.

The efforts of Kaepernick, James, Sterling and many more, in shining a light on injustice and keeping issues front of mind for their millions of followers, has put a collective pressure on the federations, leagues and brands they represent to stand for something more than just social media statements. As President Obama said in his commencement speech this week about peaceful protests: “they make the folks in charge uncomfortable".

While many brands and organisations, including sporting institutions, have shown solidarity with the George Floyd protests, the question is now how will they contribute to real change? Presently, the activism on display is driven from the bottom up by athletes themselves. The NFL’s public shift on the Black Lives Matter movement, which eventually led to a video from commissioner Roger Goodell condemning racism and admitting wrongdoing last week, started with a rogue NFL video producer editing a video featuring prominent players, without his employer's knowledge. The leadership of major leagues, competitions and brands must make social purpose a priority by educating fans and consumers and ensuring stricter punishments for socially unacceptable behaviour.

Broader society, and by proxy media, now celebrate influential voices who are not afraid put their heads above the parapet. Moving forwards, more brands and media owners must support these sentiments with actions. Those who display purpose, authenticity and deliver on their promises will be the ones that thrive.

Pandora’s Box is now well and truly open and sportsmen and women will continue to take strength from the positive reactions to their willingness to speak out. Top-level athletes, and the organisations they represent, can collectively reach more people than almost any politician and connect. This is an age where you can educate, influence and inspire and make a real difference for generations to come. The challenge now for athletes will be to ensure they remain accountable and live up to their claims.

Let’s be clear: there are some deep-seated, undeniable issues prevalent in many western democracies. However, we do still have the right to protest and to voice our opinion in person or on social media. Let’s hope that some of the athletes take their new-found activism and continue to call out injustice wherever and whatever country they see it and are empowered to do so by the brands, teams and countries they represent.

Simon Oliveira is the managing director of KIN Partners. He has worked with stars including David Beckham, Usain Bolt, Neymar Jr, Lewis Hamilton, Andy Murray and Liam Payne, was a founding partner in content studio OTRO, and has co-produced documentaries, such as I am Bolt and Class of '92.

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