Exercising a conscience

Colin Kaepernick’s continued protest against the American national anthem is a wake-up call for athletes far and wide.

Colin Kaepernick (Daniel Hartwig)

Colin Kaepernick (Daniel Hartwig)

Last year, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines by kneeling during the symbolic playback of America’s national anthem before NFL games. He stated in post-match interviews that it was because of America’s continued systemic oppression of black people and people of colour. Other players followed suit, including those from other sport such as Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder in Seattle’s football team.

However, many were (unsurprisingly) offended by Kaepernick for speaking up and stating the obvious in this way. This field includes fellow NFL players and managers, who are happy to defend colleagues guilty of violence, to bystanders such as the apparently-liberal Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The question posed by Kaepernick’s exclusion is why British athletes remain so anaemic to take a stand on similar issues of social justice. Rio Ferdinand and John Barnes have spoken out against racism after their own experiences. However, the only name that currently comes to mind for most is Gary Lineker saying Britain should do more to help refugees, for example.

This contrasts with American stars such as Serena Williams speaking up for equal pay, or Andre Agassi’s charitable foundation helping children in his home state of Nevada. Another former tennis player, Billy Jean King, famously stood up against the ongoing myth of women not being as strong as men in the “battle of the sexes” tennis matches in the 1970s. Nonetheless, players can get things wrong, such as Arthur Ashe saying black Americans were behind their white counterparts partly because of laziness, which is of course nonsense.

Arguments are always made by (mostly white) fans and former athletes that players should “just shut up and play”, the standard retort sprayed at celebrities for speaking out on issues close to their hearts and outside their profession. But it’s hard to separate social cause and activism from sport given sport is inherently social, inclusionary and popular.

This is being demonstrated right now vociferously in Australia, thanks to the marriage law postal survey. Although many sporting organisations have come out in support of equal marriage, athletes such as Israel Folau, a rugby union pro, have come out against the cause. Since his declaration, fellow colleagues have jumped on Folau for an issue that is quickly becoming settled in many parts of the world.

Back in America, Kaepernick remains an unpicked free agent in the NFL draft despite many fans and colleagues supporting him, even winning the NFL’s Players Association community MVP award for its first week. This is because he’s followed through on his promise of donating a significant portion of his salary to multiple social causes. In a world swimming with cash, publicity and endorsements, athletes seem too afraid to speak their mind like Kaepernick. This is also demonstrated by NFL bosses supporting Trump and unwilling to upset a large following of American football, despite the fact black Americans have come to dominate the sport in recent years. It also shows why many are frothing over ESPN host Jemele Hill’s comments that Trump is a white supremacist. (Disclaimer: he is.)

In Britain, football easily remains the most popular sport, given its history as a sport for the working class thanks to its only requirement of needing a single item to play. (You guessed it: a football.) It explains why the Hillsborough disaster went ignored for so long. However, the recent swarms of cash injected since the 1990s has gentrified the game beyond recognition, blinding our social conscience and tying the hands and mouths of athletes with an endless stream of bank notes. In a world of increasing social and political division, we need the ideals of Colin Kaepernick so badly. But who else will speak up?