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The reason athletes can no longer sit on the fence

Ruaidhri O'Connor



Staying strong: Bryan Habana has spoken of standing up to racism

Staying strong: Bryan Habana has spoken of standing up to racism


Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick

Getty Images

Staying strong: Bryan Habana has spoken of standing up to racism

The athlete's voice has become a powerful commodity in the social media world. It can also be a force for change when they choose to use it and it is getting harder and harder to avoid that choice.

Across the past week, we have seen footballers Jadon Sancho and Marcus Thuram risk fines by demonstrating their support with the 'Black Lives Matter' movement when celebrating their Bundesliga goals, while the Liverpool squad made a clear statement about where they stood with the powerful photo of them taking a collective knee at Anfield.

Marcus Rashford wrote movingly of his own struggle with the murder of George Floyd, while countless others including high-profile Irish stars turned their social media pages black in solidarity.

In the States, it is impossible to stay neutral as cities burn and even Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have followed big brands like Nike, adidas and the NFL in issuing statements condemning racist acts.

There is hollowness to the words, particularly the NFL's given its treatment of Colin Kaepernick, but the fact that any sort of stand is being taken is proof that the middle ground has shrunk significantly.

Jordan is flavour of the month right now, but he has almost always eschewed any attempts to be part of any movement for change - famously uttering the words "Republicans buy sneakers too".

In 'The Last Dance', he argues that the remark was a throwaway one; but it is a mantra that has been followed by many sportsmen and women since who have chosen to opt out.

Some simply don't see themselves as political, while others fear the cost of upsetting sponsors, clubs, fans or governing bodies who could look unfavourably on a controversial view.

Watching the footage roll in from the United States this week, it's getting harder and harder to remain neutral.

Born into an apartheid state, Bryan Habana recognises injustice and lent his voice to the social media campaign over the past few days.

He understands the unifying power of sport and spoke eloquently of the power of watching Siya Kolisi lift the World Cup as the first black captain of a team once banned from international sport in disgrace as a result of the policies of the state.

Habana gets why players can be reluctant to stray beyond their comfort zones, but believes they can be a force for good.

"Inequality is still an ongoing consideration in our country," he said as he launched his new company Matchkit.co, a platform designed to help players grow their own brands and make the most of their commercial potential.

"Sport stars and celebrities, people who do have an audience, will hopefully speak for the justice and peace of humanity rather than not. You're going to get criticism either way, if you don't voice your opinion or you do, but it's an opportunity to stand for something we all believe should be there - equality.

"Unfortunately, it's not the first occurrence in the US and it's got to the point where sports stars can use their voice for equality."

Former San Francisco 49ers quarter-back Kaepernick took a knee for the US anthem and is still locked out of the NFL, while the most famous sports protest in history by Tommie Smith and John Carlos saw them ostracised by the sporting establishment on their return to the United States.

That can be the price of taking a stand, but the price of staying silent is increasingly too much to pay.

"Every time you put something out there, you're giving yourself the opportunity to be criticised, critiqued or praised for it. That's an understanding everyone has," Habana said.

"Trying to have a political standpoint is always going to be a very tough decision to make.

"Each to his own. What happened with George Floyd, in times of the sporting world coming together and showing solidarity, it's a great opportunity to use the platform .

"Once you put yourself out there, you need to take full ownership because, if you don't, you're going to be struggling for most of your career."

While George Floyd's is an American story, the issue of racism is a global one. Sport in Ireland has changed with society and the issue is on our doorsteps.

Ireland footballer Cyrus Christie and sprint champion Gina Akpe Moses have spoken about their experience of experiencing abuse while wearing the green jersey.

"To stand up alone, it is hard," Moses told 'Off The Ball' last week. "But you come into this world basically alone, and when you die, you're going to be alone again so you need to look after yourself."

Solidarity from the big names of Irish sport matters and Tuesday's Instagram campaign, though small, was a start. "If you are silent you are complicit. We are at that point," Michael Johnson said this week, summing up the state of play.

Sportspeople won't save the world, but they have influence and this is a chance to use it for some good.

Belfast Telegraph