NFL players such as Colin Kaepernick have become powerful voices in American political life, yet in the UK footballers seem unwilling to follow suit
22 March ~ Liverpool’s banning last month of Sun journalists from both Anfield and the club’s Melwood training ground, while not a political statement as such, was an all too rare example of someone in the game standing up for what they believe in.
British football still steers clear of anything seen as controversial; too many agents, too many sponsors, too much spluttering media indignation. When, in the days running up to the Brexit vote last June, Premier League chairmen came out in support of the Remain campaign, we all knew it was down to financial, rather than moral, anxieties.
In the US, political activism has splashed down heavily in the archly conservative world of the NFL. Six members of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots team recently declared that they will boycott a traditional visit to the White House. One of the players, LeGarrette Blount, told journalists that he does not “feel welcome in that house”.
Before the NFL season began (and before Donald Trump was elected president), Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, quietly began a protest that quickly escalated into a heated national debate, when he refused to stand for the usual pre-match anthem, instead going down on one knee and giving a clenched-fist salute.
Kaepernick was protesting in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, set up in the wake of a succession of police shootings of young African-American males. In 2014, five St Louis Rams players ran out on to the pitch with their hands up, in reference to the killing of black teenager Michael Brown by police in the neighbouring town of Ferguson (Brown reportedly had his hands in the air when he was shot).
Basketball has pretty much aligned itself with BLM from the outset and now, with the election of Trump, players have become increasingly willing – indeed almost expected – to speak their minds about the turmoil and controversies of American political life.
There is a definite sense that, as role models, athletes can raise consciousness. More than that, there is also a growing realisation that players ultimately have more power than sponsors; that the top players, with their huge earnings, do not actually need them at all.
When Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour, publicly backed Trump after the election, Stephen Curry, one of basketball’s star names and a highly valued public face of the kit manufacturer, mocked his claims in the press (Plank had called the new president “an asset”; Curry suggested he was right if you removed the letters “e” and “t”).
The company promptly issued a statement claiming that their own CEO didn’t speak for them, while Plank bought a full-page ad in the Baltimore Sun to insist that he had been quoted out of context. Not, according to a New York Times report, quick enough to prevent Under Armour’s share price tumbling.
Under Armour also happen to make the kits for Tottenham and Southampton, of course. It is difficult to imagine anything similar happening in the UK. The closest we have to any of this is Gary Lineker getting into Twitter spats for his views on the government’s treatment of refugees. Granted, the current extremities of American life are above and beyond anything that we have been experiencing over here, but there is still plenty to protest about and things are not going to improve any time soon.
Twenty years ago, Robbie Fowler was fined by UEFA for revealing a T-shirt under his Liverpool top in support of striking dockworkers in the city. The stick-to-sports brigade aside, few people (not even at UEFA) begrudged him the opportunity to have his say.
One could ask how much commotion there would be now if a Premier League player, earning more money than he knows what to do with, was to speak out against restrictions on immigration in this country or the injustices of racial equality, or in support of LGBT rights. Or if members of an FA Cup-winning team refused to attend a Downing Street reception in protest at Theresa May openly siding with the Trump administration.
Athletes’ actions in the US have opened up a conversation, not just about politics but about the role of sports men and women in an increasingly politicised world. Sponsors and kit manufacturers are now keenly aware of the need to be seen as having a social conscience, essentially of caring about their markets. If there has never been a more crucial time for footballers in this country to make their voices heard, there has probably not been an easier one either. Matthew Barker
This article first appeared in WSC 362, available here