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Get Back to What you Know

Kaitlin Dryburgh

This past week the BBC has had quite the controversy on their hands, throwing their foundation of impartiality into turmoil. Although the issue originated in the House of Commons the BBC and its presenters continued to cause a stir in Westminster. In the meantime we had BBC presenters dropping out left right and centre as Bargain Hunt was swapped in instead Football Focus. All of this being kickstarted by the famously uncontroversial football pundit, or the face of Walkers crisps depending on your interests, Gary Lineker. Gary stated that the government’s new immigration bill had wording that was similar to that of the 30s Nazi Germany. I don’t think he was wrong, but I’m not going to go over the politics of this or why he may have simply just been stating the facts.

Just like when many sportspeople open their mouth and a non-sports-thing comes out, many are up in arms. “Stick to sports”, “that’s not what you’re paid to do”, “enough of the politics, stick to football” were the oh so familiar phrases tossed around. From the very beginning many were demanding to know why Gary would even have a political opinion and how does he have the outright audacity to share it, when he is but a mere simpleminded sportsperson. Even some of those who sided with his sentiments were saying “I kinda agree with what he said, I just don’t think he should be getting involved in politics”. We’ve heard a lot of that recently (mostly from football), from the Qatar World Cup when nations were told to “stick to football, not politics”, to F1 drivers being told they can no longer make political statements without approval from the governing body and the president of the Olympic Committee asking that politics be kept away from the organisation. The message is; sport isn’t political and to those sports people who have the cheek to have opinions, keep your mouths shut what do you know?

Reading between the lines the real message is, “I don’t like what you’re saying, please stop or I’ll lose money and look stupid (holding back sobs)”. Gary isn’t the first to use sport as a vehicle for social change, to challenge those in charge and to shine a light on a problem and he won’t be the last. This isn’t a new phenomenon sport has always been this way. Yes it brings people together and we don’t want full out protests happening on a football pitch or a political debate in a velodrome. They are in certain terms separate yet they are also inseparable. Sport creates a level playing ground, it involves everyone, requires hard work, team work and passion. Sportspeople are often aspirational and can be people to look up to (most of the time). It can be the perfect place to shine a light on issues as it is an all-encompassing platform. Not to mention most sports have people from all walks of lives, places and upbringings, in some cases sport is more diverse than any government cabinet or committee. Would we not want the ones with a big platform to use it for good. Or would we rather they carry on racking in the millions, driving supercars and visiting their multiple houses while not caring about anything else?

Sport, politics and social activism have been pals for a long time and quite often walk hand in hand, so I still find it surprising that people haven’t woken up to that. These two have been used in positive ways, yet on the other hand we’ve seen sport being used as white washing technique for countries who have appalling human rights records. Quite often by the same countries who will outwardly proclaim sport has no room for politics.

Not that long ago we had Marcus Rashford influence the government into a U-turn as he gave them no option but to help hungry children, what a monster. Yes the 20 something year-old footballer was the reason kids who were receiving free school meals during term time also received food vouchers during holidays in 2020. He then continued to campaign to expand the number of children eligible for free school meals and bring awareness to poverty in the UK. The reason he was compelled to campaign on this matter was his own experience of receiving free school meals, something that Boris Johnson couldn’t have related to.

Yet we can go further back than that. The 1968 Olympics produced one of the most powerful images at the games as Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium for their 200m first and third place awards and raised one gloved hand in a fist in support for black power. A show of support for the civil rights movement back home in USA that had recently lost Martin Luther King Jr. Back then they were reprimanded by the Olympic Committee, yet now we know they were on the right side of history, shining a light on an issue so very important.

In the same vein we have Colin Kaepernick the NFL player who was the first athlete to take the knee during a 2016 national anthem, in protest to the oppression of black people following a number of high-profile police shootings of black people.

From Billie Jean-King using her platform for the women’s liberation movement, to Naomi Osaka wearing a face mask with Tamir Rice’s name on it, politics and social justice campaigning has always been present in sport.

We have Paralympians Anne Wafula Strike and Sophie Christiansen both bringing awareness to the issues faced by wheelchair users when simply trying to use public transport. These are cases that show the positive ways sport can integrate with activism. Yet people would still have it that the two should never meet.

So if not sportspeople who? Politicians? Wouldn’t exactly say they have a great track record in uniting everyone. Who qualifies for holding the government to account as it could be argued that recently footballers have been a better opposition to the government than that of the actual opposition. Who’d have seen the day.

There seems to be a great amount of hypocrisy when it comes to who in the public eye is allowed to speak on matters that branch outside of their industry. What about when someone in business comes out to criticise the government? This seems to be a more acceptable situation, even though nine of ten times they do so to protect profits and not in the interest of helping people. Take James Dyson, the flip-flopping carpet cleaning business man, from lobbying the government to join the Euro in the 90s to waving the Brexit flag later on. People may question his logic but it’s rarer to hear someone question his right to speak on the matter.

So who gets to make political statements in the public eye, or who do we want influencing government? I feel we may need to evaluate who we choose as acceptable. Yes we need to have a degree of separation from politics and sport, that way we can get everyone round the table but forget it if you think the two can be completely separated. Sport is a valuable asset for so many reasons and the very use of it can challenge thinking. Take Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics winning four gold medals throwing a massive spanner in the works to the white supremacy rhetoric of Nazi Germany.

We don’t know as of yet how the BBC will move past this saga, however there’s no doubt they will be licking their wounds as the extent of their damaged reputation becomes apparent. What I am fairly certain of is you can’t stop anyone for trying to stick up for the right thing, you can try but in the grand scheme of things it won’t pay off, sportsperson or not.

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