The return of the athlete activist

The return of the athlete activist

Whether it's social issues or bringing focus to mental health, the athletes aren’t shy of taking up social causes

Naomi Osaka of Japan walks in wearing a mask with the name of George Floyd on it. Credit: AFP Photo

"Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” These are words of Richard Dawkins, a biologist, author and one of the great minds of his generation. 

At the Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles broke the code. She brought the boogeyman out from under the bed and shined the bright lights with five rings on it. Mental health. Biles - a superstar and a GOAT contender in her field - admitted she was struggling under the pressure. 

A few months prior, another young superstar spoke of the same. Over the past couple of years, Naomi Osaka had tackled social issues. She stood up in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, wore masks with seven different names of those who died of systematic racism in the US during her triumphant US Open campaign and defiantly asked ‘what was the message you got?’ when questioned. She followed that up by opening about her struggles with mental health.

These actions caused tectonic shifts in the sporting and cultural landscape. An athletes’ ability to deal with pressure, cost of fame, role of media, social media were all called into question - broken down, inspected, dissected and debated with care. 

Both Biles and Osaka had opened a Pandora’s box. And with that, it would appear, without question, the activist athletes have returned. Sport, and its protagonists, have found their voice again. 

Over the past couple of decades athletes and activism have been viewed with rose-tinted glasses. An era immortalised and romanticised in images and video. A time when athletes - and celebrities - spoke out on social issues and stood firm in their belief for the greater good.

Back in 1966, Muhammad Ali - an icon unmatched - wrote himself into immortality when he refused to be drafted to the military during the Vietnam War citing religious beliefs and ethical opposition. Ever outspoken about racial injustice, Ali - born Cassius Clay - was powered by the courage of his conviction.

Around the same time, tennis star Billie Jean King campaigned for equal pay. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos did the ‘Black Power’ salute at the podium, in what is now one of the most enduring images from any Olympics. There were many others too.

Ali was kept away from competition at the prime of his career, stripped of his world title and threatened with imprisonment. King never earned equal prize money in her career while Smith and Carlos were sent home in disgrace. The world was not ready to listen to an athlete then. 

Nor is it now. 

Osaka was cross questioned. Biles’ action drew as much contempt as it did praise. Marcus Rashford, England and Manchester United footballer, had to battle his own government to ensure free meals to school kids during the pandemic. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick - perhaps the most famous and earliest of the new generation of athlete activists - was left without a team and hated for taking a knee during the US national anthem as a protest against racial injustice, police brutality and systematic oppression in the country.

The world was happy with the ‘corporate athletes’. A sportsperson at the top of the game, dominant, messiah-like, with a reassuring smile that politely draws your attention towards a product, divorced from societal quandaries and aware of their own brand. 

When asked about endorsing a candidate for the election, Michael Jordan famously said ‘Republicans buy shoes too’. Safe, non-controversial, funny. Just the way we like them. 

“The situation is different for each athlete,” says Tuhin Mishra, Managing Director and Co-Founder at Baseline Ventures, among India’s top player representation company. 

“Muhammad Ali stood for certain things even though it meant he had to forgo his title. On the other hand you had Pele, when Brazil was going through all the revolution, he never spoke about it. Ali was part of a system which was democratic and Pele on the other hand was in a situation which was more of an anarchy and had to be careful. So there were always two schools of thought.”

What is clear now is that athletes - more and more - are speaking out again. The return of the outspoken athlete is a welcome change. The argument about not mixing sports with politics is as tedious as it is counterfactual. Sport has always reflected society. Politicians have used it as a vehicle to further their agenda, the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the Nazi regime perhaps the most famous exponent. 

The athletes - granted celebrity and iconic status by society - have the power to influence. That much is known. It’s also clear that they have faced opposition from the institutions as well. The International Olympic Committee banning protest at the podium for the Tokyo Olympics is a case in point.

“Most old establishments are bound by contract. Any breach of contract is viewed as rebellion. They are managed with an iron fist. They have not smelled the coffee, they have to relax more and be linear in their thinking,” says Harish Bijoor, India’s top business & brand-strategy specialist.

Bijoor has watched the change in the athlete’s attitude closely.

“This changed about 6-8 years ago. It happened because of societal changes. Some of them started talking about global warming, which is a huge cosmos issue. Then it started coming down to narrower issues like political and social correctness and racism. This will keep going down from macro to micro - from cosmos to very specific individual issues,” he says.

There is also a clamour from the public for athletes, celebrities in general, to speak out. 

“With the explosion of social media, everyone is expected to have an opinion about everything,” says Mishra. “A lot of times, people expect celebs and sports people to talk about social, political and economical issues. A lot of them are role models. Sometimes it’s not possible because they might not have the right knowledge. The fact of the matter is, it is very personal.”

It’s also curious that in India, they have largely stayed silent, save a few outliers. Yes, there are tweets and Instagram posts citing appropriate support or outrage over global events but the volume dwindles to near silence over many issues within the country.

“It’s also about the repercussions,” says Mishra. “Would you expect prominent sports people in our country to talk about all issues? If they speak there might be some problems, if they are active players there are restrictions. Right or wrong is again debatable. Yes, sometimes you do want them to talk about some things but we have seen a lot of them come forward during Covid and use their influence to help and arouse the feeling of helping others.”

Meanwhile, Bijoor has some trepidation about the motivation, if not the result, of this change.

“The idea is that athletes connect with fans and this connection makes them who they are. We have arrived at a time when athletes are standing up for rights once again. The new athlete is about preserving rights,” Bijoor says. 

But here is the caveat.

“There is nothing altruistic about this,” he says. “Sport stars are keeping their fingers on the pulse of their fans. They are doing exactly what their fans need, want, desire and aspire for. They are savvy, managed by brand managers who know everything about the consumer.” 

Bijoor can break it down even further.

“Look at Euro 2020, there were stars who pushed aside Coke, Heineken etc. That is activism. It attracts eyeballs and to a large extent these are people who speak on behalf of the fan base. He is doing brand de-endorsement and that is appreciated by his fans. So the new athletes of high significance understand and look after their interest by doing things that resonate with their target audience. Everything is by design. Sadly everything is just math.”

Even here there are levels, according to Bijoor. The super confident athlete whose brand goes beyond commercials and products. The confident athlete, a level below, and the new or underconfident athlete who has limited options.

“A completely confident athlete can be unpopular with marketers but not with fans. But marketers also understand this. So marketability does get affected but now, marketers will listen to them rather than the other way around,” says Bijoor.

The endorsements are all carefully planned. 

“The (athletes) team will be careful. An athlete wants to stand for certain things and that is something we are very clear of. We are mindful of it,” says Mishra.

Just look at the Indian cricket team as a case study. Just over a decade ago, the players regularly appeared in advertisements for Wills and Pepsi. 

To be fair, it’s possibly harder being a celebrity in this era of public damnation and trigger fingers. When social media is an open kitchen window through which every passerby can scream their opinion into the house. It takes conviction and guts to stand up for their ideals.

“In today’s time whatever you speak of, there are repercussions. There will always be a bounce back. It will be completely up to the person and how much they are willing to come forward and stand for what they believe in. And then follow through,” says Mishra.

So here we are, in the early 21st century. A society polarised, alive and dramatically mutating. Facing an overwhelming number of social, political, physical, mental and environmental issues but unable to agree on even the shape of the earth. 

It’s at this time the athletes have found their voice again. Altruistic or otherwise, does it matter? Would the end not justify the means? Isn’t the bottomline that social and societal issues are being raised and spoken about?

It was Ayn Rand, a controversial philosopher, who said: “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” 

The age of socially responsible athletes has returned.