Woke in progress

Topics sports | Coronavirus | Lockdown

The sports industry has never been particularly noted for being woke. But recent months have offered a reassuring counterfactual to that popular perception. Being within the realm of escapist entertainment, fans tend to place sports people in a bubble, chasing trophies, medals, records, and riches within their relatively short career spans. This may be unfair to the many, such as Muhammad Ali, Roberto Baggio, and Steve Waugh, who worked selflessly during their playing days to champion social causes. Now, and unexpectedly, this view should be up for a reassessment. Top honours go to 22-year-old Marcus Rashford, star striker for Manchester United. His touching open letter to all MPs prompted the Boris Johnson government to reverse its controversial decision to discontinue school meal vouchers after the academic term, a policy that would have affected thousands of children from poor families struggling with job losses. Mr Rashford appealed to the government to reconsider, recalling his own upbringing by a single mother who was dependent on meal vouchers to feed her family. “I encourage you to … find your humanity,” he wrote. Mr Rashford, the quintessential inner-city kid made good, is a role model for thousands of aspiring young footballers. His intervention has made him a hero beyond the narrow world of football.

Indeed, the English Premier League, in which Mr Rashford plies his trade, has taken a lead in displaying a developed social conscience. Several of the richest clubs (ironically, mostly foreign-owned) donated to the National Health Service (NHS) and NGOs to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic. When this premier tournament of world football reopened on June 17 behind closed doors, the clubs took a collective decision for players’ jerseys to carry the NHS logo on the front, as an expression of gratitude, and the Black Lives Matter label on the back in solidarity with the anti-racist movement in the US. All players also take a knee before each match, as a signal against racism and an acknowledgement of the US National Football League player Colin Kaepernick’s gesture of protest at policy brutality against African Americans in 2016. Mr Kaepernick’s gesture had set off a huge controversy including enraging Donald Trump and his white supremacist base, prompting the NFL to ban kneeling during the national anthem. Interestingly, the NFL administration reversed the ban this year following the outbreak of nationwide protests against the killing of an African American by a policeman in Minneapolis. In the US, star basketballer LeBron James also entered the lists, speaking eloquently on the subject of poverty and racism, calling out Fox News host and Trump supporter Laura Ingraham’s crude advice to him to “shut up and dribble”. “I am more than an athlete,” he wrote on his social media channel bearing the hashtag #wewillnotshutupanddribble.

In the world of tennis, stars such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have raised money for the fight against Covid-19 in their countries, and the two had teamed up just before the lockdown to play exhibition matches in South Africa to raise funds for Mr Federer’s charities there. Against this must stand world number one Novak Djokovic’s irresponsible sponsorship of a tournament in Adria, which caused the infection to spread among several tennis players including himself. Mr Djokovic has stood out for his erratic behaviour during the pandemic. He publicly declared that he would refuse to be vaccinated and his wife’s Twitter feed was blocked for spreading the fake news that 5G networks were responsible for the spread of Covid-19. That the maverick Nick Kyrgios could sound positively statesmanlike in describing the Adria tournament as “boneheaded” tells you how far global sport has travelled towards wokeness. It is a pity that the same cannot be said of the Indian sports world.

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