Discussions surrounding social issues and mental health awareness have grown in importance during the Coronavirus pandemic, with travel, work and exercise restrictions impacting millions of peoples’ lives.
Crucial conversations that used to be at risk of being hushed are now regularly hollered about from the rooftops as growing numbers begin to confront important issues, challenge procedures and condemn certain behaviours.
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When it comes to social issues, “stick to sport” is a common refrain thrown at footballers whenever they try to, well, do something that isn’t football.
Now when the issue in question is haircuts, buying luxury vehicles or any other example of the kind of luxurious lifestyles that footballers enjoy you can dismiss the complaint as trivial nonsense bothering young people living their lives.
However when people tell footballers to “stick to sport” when they’re trying to raise awareness on social issues, to use their platforms to combat injustice, then the refrain becomes actively harmful and should be discouraged wherever possible.
Not least because players often do not need to stick to sport, they are perfectly capable of using their spare time to push for social change without impacting their performances on the pitch.
We’ve come up with a list of 8 players (well, sort of) that are paragons of virtue. Players who have shown they are capable of campaigning for social justice while also continuing to pull their weight on matchday.
The most prominent instance of a player most adamantly not “sticking to sport” is Marcus Rashford. A back injury and then an extended lockdown gave the Manchester United striker a chance to commit himself to campaigning against child poverty in the UK.
Rashford’s campaign has been so absurdly effective that he’s even been able to impact and in some cases fully reverse government policy. The subject of free school meals have been a constant source of discussion in recent months and Rashford, someone who made use of such schemes in his youth, has taken to Twitter to get his message for change across.
While in dialogue over changes to the free school schemes, Rashford also returned to fitness and has continued to lead Manchester United from the front as one of their most devastating attacking players, scoring goals as the Red Devils have powered their way up the Premier League table all the way to first place. That Rashford has helped make Manchester United a Premier League challenger at the same time as his social justice campaign is the biggest strike against the “stick to sports” crowd you could imagine.
Anyway, I'm off to 'stick to my football'. Have a good weekend everyone. (6)
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) September 25, 2020
Raheem Sterling is running a quite literal social justice campaign through a TV advert with sponsor Gillette where the England winger takes a stand against all forms of prejudice. That advert is the material conclusion to a long period of the Manchester City star constantly speaking out on issues revolving around racism and bigotry, in particular the manner in which some sections of the media treats black players (something he has personally been a victim of) and he did it all while playing brilliantly on the pitch, winning the FWA Footballer of the Year award in 2019.
Few footballers can claim to have been quite so loudly vocal with their activism efforts as Megan Rapinoe. The American winger literally won the World Cup all the while taking the knee and not singing along to the American national anthem as an act of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality in the United States.
Rapinoe has also been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights and made a definitive stand against the Donald Trump administration by declaring that she and her team-mates wouldn’t be going to the White House (as is customary for Championship-winning sides to do). None of this activism stopped her playing well, winning trophies and indeed capturing every major international honour around including captaining the USA to win the World Cup and claiming the 2019 Ballon d’Or and FIFA’s The Best award.
“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties" — @mPinoe 4 years ago, when she was the only white athlete to kneel with Colin Kaepernick https://t.co/kX1aiH89Hv
— Outsports (@outsports) August 27, 2020
In 2017 Juan Mata helped launched the charity Common Goal, where footballers pledge at least 1% of their massive salaries to support various causes all around the world. This movement has since grown to incorporate more players including Rapinoe, managers like Jurgen Klopp, clubs like FC Nordsjaelland, even colossal corporations like EA Sports, makers of the FIFA video games, and Champions League sponsors Banco Santander. Mata’s tireless efforts with Common Goal haven’t stopped him from being an important Manchester United squad member as they return to the top of the English game. His influence on the pitch may be waning, but his impact off it continues to rise.
You’ll never walk alone Keith. If wearing the #RainbowLaces armband helps even just one person then it’s progress. Everyone is welcome at Liverpool Football Club. Hope you enjoyed the game tonight. #YNWA https://t.co/TfIhASribZ
— Jordan Henderson (@JHenderson) December 6, 2020
Liverpool’s captain has repeatedly proven himself to be willing to stand up for social causes. Whether that’s supporting the Rainbow Laces campaign designed to support LGBTQ inclusion in football, or being at the forefront of the #PlayersTogether campaign that saw footballers raise money for the NHS as they tackled the Coronavirus pandemic. Henderson’s charitable works have come at the height of his footballing prowess as the midfielder has skippered Liverpool to a Champions League and Premier League win in the last two years.
The difference in terms of success and commercial appeal between the USMNT (the United States Men’s National Team) and the USWNT (United State’s Women’s National team) is like the difference between Barnsley and Barcelona. The American men are an afterthought, whereas the America women are a powerhouse who not only win countless trophies but also generate the most revenue for their federation.
US Soccer, however, pays the men substantially more to represent their country. Carli Lloyd found that to be unacceptable and has been fighting for Equal Pay. Now, this isn’t just a social media campaign, Lloyd organised 27 of her team-mates and literally sued US Soccer. The judge ruled in US Soccer’s favour, but Lloyd’s crusade never impacted her ability to dominate on the field.
It would honestly be easier to list the social causes Héctor Bellerin has not supported. The Arsenal right-back has in many ways become the voice of his generation, a player with a deep passion for a range of matters beyond football and refusal to let issues slide by. The Spaniard has defended women’s reproductive rights, he’s shown his care for the environment by planting trees every time Arsenal won at the end of the 2019/20 campaign, he’s spoken up about men’s mental health, he’s backed Black Lives Matter and pledged to donate money for every minute he played at an Under-21 tournament to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire via the British Red Cross.
Marcus Thuram hasn’t really organised any campaigns formally, but it would be remiss to exclude him from this list given the impact his actions have had on the game. In May 2020, shortly after George Floyd’s tragic death, protests erupted all around the USA. In a show of solidarity and support against police brutality, Thuram took a knee (the gesture popularised by NFL player Kaepernick) after scoring against Borussia Monchengladbach. This gesture was followed by others and has even been taken up in official campaigns, such as the Premier League. Thuram has continued to produce on the field of play throughout.
Troy Deeney and Wes Morgan
Picking up from where Thuram started, Troy Deeney and Wes Morgan brought “taking the knee” and anti-racism to the very forefront of English football. The tireless work by the two men to organise, via the PFA, every team to immediately take the knee just before kick-off of every game as a show of solidarity against anti-black racism and police brutality has been incredible to see. They have helped to start a crucial conversation about how to combat racism in society.
Deeney is no stranger to social work, having previously been fronted the FA’s #HeadsUp campaign to directly address men’s mental health. While Deeney and Morgan are both past the peaks of their powers, it’s age rather than their social campaigning that has limited their on-pitch contributions. In fact, using the influence and experience they’ve built up over decades-long careers to improve conditions for the young people that follow them both in and outside the game is a fantastic use of their golden years as footballers.
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