(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The worrying rise of compelled speech in professional sport

The sports stars pushing back against the BLM movement

Artillery Row

With the return of professional sport in the recent months, there have been several notable changes that will no doubt be emblematic in years to come when the re-runs are aired. Most striking perhaps are the stands which sit completely empty, but there are other noticeable hallmarks, including mask-clad support staff and elbow-bumps between opposing teams at the end of games. One distinctive new feature viewers can’t help but spot is the prominent placement of “Black Lives Matter” in the stands, on the pitches, and on player’s shirts. And while only a fool would contest the truth of that phrase, it is concerning to see athletes across sporting codes being coerced into celebrating a movement that has moved far beyond a simple slogan.

In what seems to be a huge effort to not appear silent, Black Lives Matter has become the de facto movement of choice promoted by sports teams, leagues and other sports bodies in order that they might “do their bit” in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in the United States. However, even a shallow attempt at due diligence will reveal aspects of the movement that would normally result in pause for thought. Not only has the mainstream Black Lives Matter organisation in the US taken direct aim at the police and “western-prescribed nuclear family structure”, but it has also consistently failed to denounce atrocious violence and destruction committed in its name.

Huge pressure has been placed on players to participate, regardless of what they actually believe

For sports leagues that are notoriously slow to promote anything that might taint their carefully preserved, family-friendly image, it is curious that many have dumped existing anti-racism campaigns to so emphatically jump on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon. A more pointed controversy arose when the official Black Lives Matter UK account tweeted a series of controversial statements on Palestine, leading to the BBC banning visual support for the movement. The Premier League on the other hand sought to distance itself from the debacle, saying that their campaign was not an endorsement of any political movement. However, it is undeniable that the movement galvanised under a simple slogan has moved far beyond a call for racial equality and into radical political territory.

Some professional athletes have been subjected to heavy criticism for declining to join in Black Lives Matter activities (such as taking a moment to kneel before every game) even though it is clear they are not trying to argue that black lives don’t matter. Israel Folau – the Australian rugby superstar who was infamously sacked for expressing his religious beliefs on homosexuality – was slammed for being the only player not to take a knee prior to kick-off as the Rugby Super League’s fixtures resumed. Since then, Billy Vunipola and several South African rugby union players have faced similar criticism for not kneeling ahead of Premiership rugby fixtures.

As people of colour, both Folau and Vunipola ostensibly have more to gain in getting behind the Black Lives Matter movement. However both have rejected it, with Folau saying that he would only kneel before God, and Vunipola saying that aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement unsettled him. In a recent podcast, Vunipola laid out his thoughts more clearly, saying:

What I saw in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement was not aligned with what I believe in. They were burning churches and Bibles. I can’t support that. Even though I am a person of colour, I’m still more a person of, I guess, Jesus.

Management at these players’ teams have respected their right not to kneel, but huge pressure has been placed on players across sporting codes to participate, regardless of what they actually believe about the movement. The piercing media attention that follows any objection often accuses the individual of not caring about racial equality, when in reality the reasons can be far more nuanced and reasonable. In the words of Jonathan Issac, the only NBA player who has not kneeled during the national anthem since the league’s restart, putting on a t-shirt and kneeling doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with supporting black lives.

There is deep hypocrisy in picking favourites among the many worthy causes that exist in the world

In this context, the issue raises real concerns about the existence of compelled speech in sport – forcing players to celebrate a cause or movement that they might object to. Teams will always prefer to present a united front in celebrating causes, but there must be an emphasis on ensuring players feel free to abstain from participation. It is why, as a general rule, governing bodies like FIFA have been so strict on prohibiting political or religious messages from appearing on the pitch – historically fining the home nations for wearing a poppy around remembrance Sunday for instance. And yet FIFA has flouted these same rules to embrace the Black Lives Matter and Rainbow Laces campaigns, both of which have clear political connotations. Those not comfortable with supporting these FIFA-endorsed campaigns know they will face immediate coercive criticism for not towing the line, regardless of what their motives might be.

And of course, there is deep hypocrisy in picking favourites among the many worthy causes that exist in the world. Mesut Ozil recently criticised Arsenal for backing Black Lives Matter on the one hand, but on the other keeping completely silent on the shocking treatment of the Uighur Muslims in China. Arsenal’s response on the Chinese social media site Weibo was that they “always adhere” to the principle of not getting involved in politics, but this has been shown to be patently untrue. And what about the recent plight of the Rohingya, or Venezuelans, or Zimbabweans? Are these causes any less deserving of attention?

In the current circumstances, it is almost laughable to think that NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was pushed out of the sport for protesting the treatment of minorities by silently kneeling on the side-lines during the singing of the national anthem. While he ultimately won a $10 million settlement against the league for his treatment, many (including sporting giant Nike) defended his right to express his views contrary to the position of the league at the time. Many of those who so loudly supported Kaepernick as he took heat for protesting will miss the profound irony of chastising those who decline to back the Black Lives Matter campaign.

These self-inflicted controversies can put players in very uncomfortable positions, polarize viewers, and ultimately detract from the sport itself. People want to unwind in watching sport, not engage in divisive politics. Perhaps sporting bodies would do well to follow the advice of basketball great Michael Jordan, who famously quipped “Republicans buy sneakers, too” in response to criticism for not getting involved in US politics. If athletes want to use their platform to raise awareness on a cause close to their heart, that is something they should be able to do. However, it is clearly unacceptable to pressure them into celebrating supposedly neutral causes that in reality are pushing radical political messages. Doing so is harmful not only to the sport, but also to the cause itself.

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