After being gagged by contracts for years, finally sportsmen and sportswomen are breaking out of the role of being gladiator-slaves, made to be silent in exchange for money. They are standing up and speaking out and kneeling down and walking out. However much money top sportsplayers earn, they no longer want to be gagged by those who make money out of their hard work. The top sportspeople might be the highest paid workers in the working class, earning more even than pilots and the like, but working class they are. Their talent makes oodles for their “owners”, who are private companies for the most, and for their “sponsors”, both of whom run them, so-to-speak, for profit. And they are sick of it.
Before scoring two goals at the first match he played in the Euro2020 football tournament, Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal’s football star, in his press conference beforehand, with deliberate ostentation, removed two bottles of Coca-Cola from in front of him, where sponsors had no doubt contracted to have them placed, and hid them carefully out of view, then held up a bottle of water, saying “agua” clearly the Portuguese for “water”. The market value of Coca-Cola crashed almost immediately from $242 billion to $238 billion – a drop of $ 4 billion, or Rs 164 billion. The power of a modern-day Spartacus in the revolt of modern-day slaves, a revolt we are witnessing. The UEFA spokesperson, on the defensive, said “everyone is entitled to their drink preferences”. He even added somewhat feebly that they offered not just Coca-Cola but also water as well as Coca-Cola without sugar. In another era, Cristiano Ronaldo might have been reprimanded, fined or even worse.
Top levels sportswoman in South African volley-ball, and incidentally LGBT organizer Leigh-ann Naidoo in a memorable 2010 speech at the Jozi Book Fair explained why it is that, so often, when we hear sportspeople speak in public, they seem to be saying nothing much. She said they, as sportspeople, are forced to sound dumb. It is, she explained, because they are literally not allowed to speak on important issues. It is in their contracts when they sign up to compete for their countries, or for their teams, or in their own names in individual sports. Whatever, the question they are asked, they can reply only about how well or badly they performed, or about the weather. It is as though they have signed a permanent non-disclosure agreement. It is as though they have signed away free speech. She gave that fine analysis in 2010.
When top Liverpool goal scorer Robbie Fowler in October 2011 scored a goal, he raised his football jersey to display a T-shirt which read simply “Support the Liverpool Dockers” during an important industrial dispute, he was fined 900 pounds. A lot of money. He did not have the free speech to have this written on a T-shirt that he wore underneath his football jersey. This is what the UEFA Disciplinary Committee said, "By lifting his shirt and displaying the message, Fowler violated UEFA regulations. Although we may sympathize with such support, it is a strict rule that a football ground is not the right stage for political demonstrations." How things have changed in so little time. At the time, for the record, Fowler always ready to make a quip, when asked at his Disciplinary Hearing why he had taken this political action, and knowing that his team-mate McManaman was not charged although he, too, had a T-shirt under his shirt with the same slogan and although this was also in public view when he swapped shirts with a player from the opposing team after the match, said: “I did it because McManaman told me to!”
And it had been like this for many years before. Public stands on anything were not allowed from sportspeople. Back in 1968, when American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in 200 metres sprint, famously raised their black power salutes from the Olympics podium, they were expelled from the Games on the spot. Instant punishment was lashed out against them. Less known is that the Australian Peter Norman, who won silver that day, and who chose to wear the same human-rights-badge as them while they were all three on the podium, was expelled from all sport for life when he got back to Australia as punishment. His family ostracized and he could not get a job. He was only re-habilitated in 2020, that is to say, last year, a good fourteen years after his death. In homage to his little-known participation, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were his pallbearers at the funeral. He was Australia’s best ever sprinter. Such were the punishments if a sportsman infringed the law of silence about political opinions.
Two years earlier, the supreme punishment had already been meted out to champion boxer, Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of all his heavyweight boxing titles in 1966 for refusing so bravely to fight in the Vietnam War. He was not allowed to work in the USA. And he was not allowed to leave the USA. That courage made him a hero.
And before that, the sports world was debating whether to exclude Apartheid South Africa from all sports. This caused repression against Anti-Apartheid activists in South Africa. The South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC) reported to the Olympic committee in 1963, for example, that "Due to the actions of the South African Government, Mr. Brutus [SAN-ROC President] is at present in prison after having been shot. Mr. Harris [SAN-ROC Chairman] is now unable to leave South Africa as he was detained by the South African police and his passport was withdrawn." (John Harris was sentenced and executed in 1965 after having placed a bomb with warning on a segregated railway platform as part of his political struggle against apartheid. He went to the gallows singing We Shall Overcome.) All this to say, this was a hard struggle, the one to get rid of Apartheid.
Countries in Asia and Africa united together with the “socialist states” of the Soviet Block not to participate in events if Apartheid teams were present. “Apartheid”, they summed it up, “is not a game.”
And when Apartheid sports teams toured Britain in 1970, huge mass protests were held wherever there was a match, with over50,000 people taking part each time. In Ireland, protests were even stronger.
Protests and boycotts continued all over the world. South Africa was finally expelled from the Olympic movement in 1970. And nearly all sporting contact with Apartheid teams was cut off until the end of Apartheid in 1994. The sports protests and boycotts were an important part of the anti-apartheid struggle. They were what popularized anti-apartheid struggles to a very broad public, that is to say, beyond active trade union members beyond left-wing party grassroots activists, and beyond some faith-based organizations, in countries in Europe and in the USA, for example.
But, on other issues, the ban on free speech for athletes was largely maintained. And sports became more and more commercialized, with sponsors and private companies getting to make money from the talent of players. This, in turn, limited free speech.
The more recent uprisings really took off in 2016 when quarterback in American football Colin Kaepernick launched “taking a knee” during the US National anthem as a sign of protest against police violence and racism. What a respectful and noble act. Yet, he has been blacklisted for his actions. The police are part of the state. When police officers brutalize and kill people, it is the responsibility of everyone in society, including sportspeople, to speak out against it. That is what taking a knee means.
He was ostracized even though his symbolic action, at the same time, became generalized, all over the USA, and now all over British football, too, where whole teams, the referees and linesmen and all, take a knee before matches – in a stand against racism. Until today they take this stand. The huge movement to protest the cruel killing of George Floyd by a police officer, made Colin Kaepernick’s symbolic action all the more poignant. This “taking a knee”, in turn, gives sportsmen and sportswomen the confidence to stand up, instead of bowing down, to talk up instead of biting their tongues.
For example, Arsenal’s former striker, Thierry Henry, spear-headed a boycott of social media last month against on-line racism. His arguments were very advanced: if you, Facebook and Twitter, can censor anyone who infringes copyright laws (just because of the royalties money) well then you can work out how to cut the racist attacks on-line, too, he argued. Hundreds of top sportsmen joined in and boycotted Facebook and Twitter because of racism and racist abuse on line.
Paul Pogba and Amad Diallo of Manchester United brought out a Palestinian flag a month ago in support of the Palestinian people when the Israeli army was bombing Gaza, while Celtic supporters have a long history of supporting Palestine. Literally dozens of footballers from teams literally all over the world have taken a stand in support of the Palestinian people in recent months.
At the 2020 US women’s tennis open, the shy world tennis number two, Naomi Osaka, wore a mask with the names, one by one, of seven people killed by police, on her mask, one for each round that she progressed: in a protest against racial injustice. Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and for the finals, Tamir Rice. Incidentally, she won.
And at the French Open this year, Naomi Osaka could not face speaking to the Press after her first match. She refused. Many sports people are under contractual obligation with organizers to hold a press conference after every match – win or lose. So, as well as not being allowed to speak freely, sportspeople are forced to speak. Naomi Osaka was obliged to speak to the media, even if she found it incredibly stressful. She was fined $15,000 by the French tennis authorities on the spot for her refusal to hold a press conference. She said I won’t do the next one either, meaning she would rather accept to pay the fine than face that stress. They upped the stakes and said they would suspend her, in that case. She showed them they could not. She simply withdrew altogether from their tournament. She cited her care for her mental health as the reason. The French authorities were forced to apologize. They backed down. They looked cruel, and nothing they did or said could help. At the same time, other sportspeople in tennis and beyond – in football, in basketball, in car racing, in American football, in golf even, all showed fantastic support for her refusal to speak to the media. Free speech, she taught us, is the freedom to speak and the freedom from being forced to speak.
And now, Cristiano Ronaldo removes sponsor Coca-Cola’s bottles out of his frame. What a sophisticated act. And what an effect on the value of the Coca-Cola company.
As we had reason to say on our website last month, if we can be excused for quoting ourselves, that it was strange that at the same time as Al Jazeera launched its film on The Fans that Make Football about Celtic’s political fans that “... in late April 2021, [...] the capitalists who run football for money got their come-uppance. They had set up a whole, big “Super League”. At once a kind of intense class struggle rose up. Players, retired footballers, all the staff in the Leagues and Cups, made an alliance with fans, and pulled down the “Super League” in a matter of days. It was as if the gladiator slaves and the Roman plebs finally rose up against the Roman patricians.”