By Shivam Singh
Sports and emotion go hand in hand because sports capture the ecstasy and agony experienced by fans. It requires no elaboration that sports without emotions and passion would be a tame affair. Dissent in sports is usually understood as expressing dissatisfaction against an umpire’s decision. However, in the present context, dissent must be understood as a conscientious protest against a larger problem that has socio-political undertones.
Sports administrators have been wary of conscientious dissent for two significant reasons. First, they have felt that protests would detract focus from the main event and hence dilute the event’s credibility as well as marketability. Second, they have steadfastly believed that sports and politics belong to distinct spheres, which should not be allowed to overlap. It is in this context that the current events assume even more significance.
The murder of George Floyd in the US by an American police officer has rocked the world and galvanised public opinion in favour of those protesting against systemic racism. It is common knowledge that the worst sufferers of police brutality in the US have been blacks and their voices have been amplified throughout the world via the popular protest slogan, “Black Lives Matter”. Bowing to the public mood and prevalent sentiment, several leagues and clubs have aligned themselves with the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
The football leagues in Germany and Spain, upon resumption after the COVID-19 inflicted breaks, have seen players such as Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund, Marcus Thuram of Borussia Monchengladbach and Marcelo Vieira of Real Madrid celebrate by kneeling and raising fists. The English Premier League has gone a step further. It has introduced jerseys with the slogan “Black Lives Matter” instead of player names for the first 12 matches and kicked-off games with the players as well as match officials kneeling to express their support for the movement. These decisions have been lauded across the board by fans, athletes and sports investors.
This display of solidarity by sports authorities indicates a marked departure from their earlier ice-cold approach vis-à-vis dissent in sports. In fact, professional sports is replete with instances of athletes facing severe censure and reprimand for their actions of conscientious dissent. At least three instances come to mind wherein the protesting athletes have borne the brunt for their decision to take a conscientious stance on political issues.
In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, while atop the podium, performed the “Black Power Salute”. They raised their clenched black-gloved fists and lowered their heads while the American National Anthem was being played. This protest was meant to attract global attention to the dismal situation in the US, insofar as the rights of blacks were concerned. The backlash against Smith and Carlos was instantaneous and they were suspended from the US Olympics Team, expelled from the Olympics Games Village and had to face disciplinary enquiries upon their return to the US.
This was followed by the “Black Band Protest” performed by Zimbabwean cricketers, Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, in the 2003 Cricket World Cup. Both cricketers wore black armbands on their cricket jersey sleeves to highlight the dictatorial excesses of Robert Mugabe’s regime. They faced severe rebuke from domestic cricket administrators as well as a large section of the public. The duo never played a game for Zimbabwe after the 2003 Cricket World Cup and sought asylum in the United Kingdom — their return to Zimbabwe had become impossible due to their protest.
The set is completed by Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest in 2016 during the National Football League (NFL) games. Playing for the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick began sitting and then kneeling during the pre-match playing of the American National anthem. He did this to protest against racial inequality as well as police brutality the US and his defiant actions made him the torchbearer of “Black Lives Matter”. The blowback against him was severe and he has not played a competitive game since 2016. He filed a grievance against the NFL management for his exclusion from the NFL but the dispute was settled after a confidential agreement was signed between the player and the management.
The changed approach of sports administrators when it comes to conscientious dissent in sports boils down to a single determinant. The administrators cannot risk being divorced from global opinion and the prevalent public mood. As leagues become increasingly diverse and global, they have become more accommodative towards expressions of conscientious dissent. Due to increased broadcasting before massive audiences and scrutiny by millions of people via social media, managements are wary of adopting approaches that are not in sync with the ideals of fair play and justice. It is entirely foreseeable that heavy-handed approaches by administrators, which clamp down on an athlete’s ability to play sport and live with dignity shall be publicly called out by a global audience on platforms with massive outreach.
The fear of their image being sullied in the eyes of the fans on forums such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram along with the prospect of reduced funding by increasingly image-conscious sponsors remains an omnipresent danger. It is this fear that is compelling sports administrators to become more humane in dealing with conscientious dissent to the extent of aligning and actively supporting causes such as Black Lives Matter. This welcome change, though motivated by external influences is ultimately benefiting sports and ensuring that just causes are securing meaningful support.
The writer is a sports lawyer
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