A photo collage of athlete-activists like Marcus Rashford, Colin Kaepernick, Billie Jean King, and Muhammad Ali, all in black and white with turquoise and red flourishes surrounding them.

How we entered the age of the activist athlete

From Colin Kaepernick to Marcus Rashford to Naomi Osaka, activism in sport has come a long way in a short space of time. Here, All To Play For author Matt Rogan asks: Is the Summer of Sport finally the moment we start taking our athletes seriously?

Matt Rogan

In 1966, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted to the military, in opposition to the Vietnam War. One year later, tennis player Billie Jean King campaigned for fair pay for professional athletes of any gender, followed swiftly by the infamous ‘Black Power’ salutes of runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Suddenly, athletes were on the front as well as the back pages.

All of this was facilitated by technology. By the 1960s, recognising the platform that colour television provided, some of the world’s biggest stars started to be emboldened to share their views on matters beyond sport.

Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready. Ali was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport, taken away from competition in the prime of his career. King’s victories, albeit professional, continued to be rewarded with less prize money than her male equivalents. Smith and Carlos were sent home from the Mexico Games in disgrace. The athletes were ready for change; the establishment, seemingly less so.

It remained that way for decades. Indeed, it was only five years ago that American football star Colin Kaepernick was criticised by Donald Trump and ostracised by his employers the National Football League (NFL) for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of systematic racism and violence against people of colour.

'Athletes were ready for change; the establishment, seemingly less so'

It took four more long years for a twist in the tale. Last summer, George Floyd’s death in America sparked a tumult of reaction: Kaepernick’s case came back to the fore. His sponsor Nike, always a shrewd judge of shifting public opinion, took Kaepernick’s side rather than that of the NFL or the President of the United States; not only that, but their share price went up as they did so, evidence that widespread public perception about athlete’s roles in activism might just be evolving. By mid-August, the NFL had backed down, with their Commissioner Roger Goodell saying, “I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to.”

There was plenty of backing down on this side of the Atlantic, too. Twenty-two-year-old England footballer Marcus Rashford forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson into reversing his position on providing food vouchers for underprivileged children during the pandemic. A month later, England cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent made a stunningly passionate and well received appeal for racial equality in cricket. After Health Minister Matt Hancock challenged footballers to “make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part”, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson launched a fund for Premier League players to contribute to NHS-related charities during the pandemic. In June, 2020, Hockey player Darcy Bourne stood outside the US Embassy with a sign that asked, in uppercase letters with the paint still wet: “WHY IS ENDING RACISM A DEBATE?” Within a few days the photo went viral, becoming a symbol of the summer protests, and was shared on social media by figures such as British Vogue editor Edward Enninful and Martin Luther King III.

Sport, and society as a whole, was being urged to look itself hard in the mirror.

Why now?

So what was it that turned Kaepernick from pariah to victim to hero? Or that all of a sudden made us see English footballers, cricketers, hockey players and others as credible social change agents?

Well firstly, between 2016 and 2020 a new generation – among them some of our brightest sporting stars – had quietly moved from being politically aware to politically vocal. I grew up with Blur and Oasis drinking their way up the charts, but this generation have been watching Stormzy headline Glastonbury while wearing a Union Jack stab-proof vest. Having been asked to stomach a toxic alphabet of austerity, Brexit and Covid, they’re not keen to be told what to think by the older generations that have let them down. Five years ago, Rashford himself was living on the poverty line. Today, Kaepernick has inspired him and many other athletes around the world to take the knee, not just in the Premier League but around the world.

The politically strident energy of youth existed 60 years ago too, of course, but it was mitigated by the fact that, in the late ’60s, the general public in most developed nations, in particular United States and Britain, still broadly believed in their governing institutions. According to the Pew Research Center, public trust in government in the United States fell from 77% in 1964 under Lyndon Johnson to just 21% under Biden in April 2021.

What next?

So, if the floodgates are now well and truly open, what comes next? This fantastic Summer of Sport offers some clues. The Euros have already seen Cristiano Ronaldo encouraging people to “drink water not Coke” at a press conference, sweeping the Coke bottle to the side. (Supporters of a sugar tax rejoiced, while the newspapers pointed to what they claimed was a resultant fall in Coke’s share price.)

But there are risks to the expectations on athletes’ shoulders, too. The Women’s Singles Draw at Wimbledon this year lacks one of the biggest stars of the game, 23-year-old Japanese star Naomi Osaka, as a result of pulling out after citing “long bouts of depression” and social anxiety.

'Five years ago, Rashford himself was living on the poverty line; he knows more about food poverty than Boris Johnson ever will'

This points to the challenges of expecting too much, too soon. Osaka, is young, rich, famous – and under constant scrutiny. Worryingly, Osaka has only a brief hiatus from the spotlight, as she’ll play a major role at the Tokyo Games when they belatedly come at the end of July. Social responsibility comes at a price that not all athletes are yet able to pay – at least not consistently.

The relationship between politics and athletes will be constant bedfellows as the Tokyo Games kick off. The International Olympic Committee want the athletes to lay down their role as activists during the Games themselves, which is likely not to end well. Certainly Britain’s Olympic leaders have a more enlightened view. Sally Munday – who is in charge of the UK’s Olympic and Paralympic performance – told me in an interview for my new book that “We want to win because it gives us a platform to have a positive impact on society.”

History tells us that social unrest and extremism emerges from a lack of trust in leadership, and Britain – and the world – urgently needs an injection of ethics, competence and trust. Why not allow the brightest of our young athletes to foster that?

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more