“I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs,” heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali had said in 1967 on the injustices of the Vietnam War. After his statement, the boxer was stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to five years in prison. It was an era without social media, but Ali still received great support from other prominent black sportspersons.
With the progress of time and the rise of social media, there has been a paradigm shift regarding what sportsmen can and cannot say. Some icons from the pitch use their reach to highlight issues that pertain to a wider mass than just sports fans.
The year 2019 saw noteworthy developments against injustice in the field of sports, with United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) skipper Megan Rapinoe leading the demand for equal pay, and prominent black footballers unequivocally condemning the racism rampant in Europe.
Equal Pay: Need of the hour
It takes unbreakable determination to keep chasing what you aspire for, especially when you’re fighting a battle against your nation’s soccer federation and at the same time being targeted by the country’s President, arguably the most influential person in the nation.
Leading USWNT from the front, both on and off the pitch, skipper Rapinoe became a voice for many across the world.
Women’s soccer player, @mPinoe, just stated that she is “not going to the F…ing White House if we win.” Other than the NBA, which now refuses to call owners, owners (please explain that I just got Criminal Justice Reform passed, Black unemployment is at the lowest level…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 26, 2019
While the FIFA Women’s World Cup was being conducted in France, the US women’s soccer team were fighting two battles simultaneously. The World Cup winners had lodged a lawsuit against the country’s soccer federation almost three months before the megaevent even kicked off. The demands were simple but it still attracted global attention.
The team in their lawsuit cited negotiations between the players and the federation to eradicate the pay discrepancy between the two genders. Improving training conditions and promotion of the team were the two other requests made by the USWNT.
Such was her influence that during the final against the Netherlands, the Stade de Lyon erupted in “Equal Pay! Equal Pay!” chants as USA lifted their fourth World Cup. The sloganeering continued during the victory parade in New York too, assuring the leader that she was not fighting a lone battle.
The equal pay battle was also fought in the other half of the world. In November, a landmark deal was penned between the Westfield Matildas and the Caltex Socceroos. After discussions between the Football Federation Australia (FFA) and the players’ union, it was announced that Australia’s top women soccer players will earn the equivalent amount as their male counterparts. In addition, it was also decided that the commercial revenue would be divided equally among the men’s and women’s team and the Matildas will also get business class travel privileges.
Say NO to Racism
Racism in football is not something new. The episode between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra in 2012 is just one of the many infamous examples.
With prominent black footballers being subjected to unacceptable chants almost every time they stepped on the pitch, some of them put their foot down and decided not to play in silence, garnering support from their teammates and management.
Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling has become one of the biggest faces to emerge in this battle. The 25-year-old started this fight when he pointed out how media resorts to biased coverage when black and white athletes are involved.
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Good morning I just want to say , I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to heard I will speak up. Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game as you can see by my reaction I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better. For example you have two young players starting out there careers both play for the same team, both have done the right thing. Which is buy a new house for there mothers who have put in a lot of time and love into helping them get where they are, but look how the news papers get there message across for the young black player and then for the young white payer. I think this in unacceptable both innocent have not done a thing wrong but just by the way it has been worded. This young black kid is looked at in a bad light. Which helps fuel racism an aggressive behaviour, so for all the news papers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all i have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an give all players an equal chance.
From demanding point deductions to urging the officials to forfeit the contest, Sterling raised his voice every time the odds were stacked against him or his teammates.
Apart from the English footballer, there were several others who joined the campaign to counter racism in the sport. Mario Balotelli, who plays for Serie A club Brescia, threatened to walk off the pitch after fans hurled monkey chants in a league match against Verona earlier this year.
In another episode, from the Netherlands, both Ajax and Heracles players passed a strong message against racism when players from both sides stopped play for 60 seconds after kicking-off the action at the Amsterdam Arena.
What a night!! Unbelievably honoured to make my debut as captain today, to combine that with 3 goals is just unforgettable 🙏🏾 So excited for the summer with this incredible squad! 🔶🦁 We are one team 🤜🏻🤛🏾 pic.twitter.com/KtuMKuiIGC
— Gini Wijnaldum (@GWijnaldum) November 19, 2019
Liverpool and Netherlands midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum also took a stand against the rising incidents of racism when he celebrated his goal against Estonia by holding his teammate Frenkie de Jong’s hands, highlighting the difference in colour but sameness in spirit.
Love is genderless
One of the fastest sprinters of India, Dutee Chand, advocated that love is not gender-bound. The sprinter in May revealed that she is in a relationship with a girl from her hometown, making her the first Indian athlete to acknowledge being in a same-sex relationship.
“I have found someone who is my soulmate. I believe everyone should have the freedom to be with whoever they decide they want to be with. I have always supported the rights of those who want to be in a same-sex relationship. It is an individual person’s choice.,” Dutee had said to The Indian Express.
While Dutee earned plaudits from a large section of people, the news was not embraced warmly by her kin. Her sister threatened to put the athlete behind the bars, while her mother claimed that such a relationship would destroy the family.
Despite all the flak from her family, Dutee remained firm and maintained her stance on same-sex relationships.
Mesut Ozil: The hero we should look up to
Before the World Cup kicked off in Russia, German playmaker Mesut Ozil grabbed the headlines after photos of him surfaced on social media with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The move was not appreciated by German supporters, who ridiculed the midfielder during pre-World Cup friendlies, eventually leading him to announce a surprise retirement from the national team.
However, that didn’t stop the footballer from taking a stand. In a post earlier this month, the Arsenal player highlighted the plight of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. He described the Uighurs as “warriors who resist persecution…Glorious believers who put up a fight alone against these who forcefully move people away from Islam.”
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) December 13, 2019
“Qurans are burned … Mosques were closed down… Islamic theological schools, madrasahs, were banned … religious scholars were killed one by one … despite all this, Muslims stay quiet.”
“Don’t they know that giving consent for persecution is persecution itself? The honourable Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, says ‘if you cannot prevent persecution, expose it’,” he added.
After Ozil’s comments, the Chinese government said that the footballer had been “blinded and misled” and asked him to visit the country. The authorities also canceled the broadcast of the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City.
Breaking The Silence
Since the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), thousands of concerned citizens have poured onto the streets in protest against the new law, leading to violent clashes between the protesters and the police. The clashes reached such an extent that the government decided to shut down internet and police personnel were seen using force to clamp the movement in many places.
Amid the uproar, several Indian sports dignitaries maintained silence but some chose to speak out. Cricketers Irfan Pathan, Aakash Chopra, and badminton player Jwala Gutta were the notable representatives from the sports fraternity who raised their voice on social media, expressing concerns over the ongoing furore.
— Irfan Pathan (@IrfanPathan) December 15, 2019
Deeply disturbing visuals from educational institutions across the country. Teary eyed. They are one of us. These kids are the future of this country. We don’t make India great by silencing their voices with the use of force. You’ll only turn them against India.
— Aakash Chopra (@cricketaakash) December 16, 2019
Taking a stand against the brutality of the police, Irfan stated that the nation is concerned about Jamia students. Former India Test opener Chopra too spoke against the brutality of the police and explained that attacking students will only turn them against the nation.
A request to all my fellow athletes 🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/nQbYaYoN4O
— Gutta Jwala (@Guttajwala) December 23, 2019
Condemning the rising tension in the country, former doubles player Jwala urged Indian sports stars to break their silence.