Sport continues to be a catalyst for protest despite misgivings

By Reuters   December 20, 2023 | 07:37 pm PT
Sport continues to be a catalyst for protest despite misgivings
England's Ben Stokes tries to stop a protester during a cricket match between England and Australia on June 28, 2023. Photo by Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs
Sport and politics would ideally never mix but as the world becomes increasingly divided on societal issues, sporting platforms have turned into lightning rods for social activism.

Be it athletes or spectators, disobedience or disruption has been the order of the day as they attempt to transcend the boundaries of the arena and convey their views to millions of people worldwide.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the U.S. national anthem at NFL games to protest against racial injustice in 2016, little did he know the butterfly effect his deed would have as it sparked debates and polarized a country.

But his gesture has since been embraced by top leagues around the world, none more so than England's Premier League -- European soccer's most lucrative and popular competition.

A spillover from the Black Lives Matter movement that began over three years ago, the league's players continue to fight discrimination by taking a knee before some games this season.

"We are unified in our belief that any form of discrimination has no place within football or wider society," the 20 Premier League captains said earlier this year.

"(We) are committed to using our platform to help celebrate diversity and show our support in the fight against racism."

The continued protests are, to a large extent, to do with rampant online abuse which rears its ugly head every week, with social media platforms seemingly unable to stem the flow of unbridled rage and racial abuse that lands in players' inboxes.

Outside the arena, Olympic medal-winning wrestlers in India found out the hard way what lies in store for those who leverage their popularity to go up against a member of the ruling party after months of protests on the streets fell on deaf ears.

India's top wrestlers were detained by police in May when they intensified their protest demanding the arrest of their federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh over allegations of sexual harassment of female athletes, which he denied.

As images of wrestlers being manhandled by police were beamed across the world, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Sakshi Malik said: "This is how our champions are being treated. The world is watching us."

Major disruption

On the other hand, sporting platforms have also been a stage for spectators to amplify causes and 2023 was no different in dividing viewers when activists disrupted major events from tennis Grand Slams to golf majors and cricket matches.

Just Stop Oil protesters interrupted Wimbledon matches when they released orange ticker-tape onto the grasscourt surface while the group also stopped play by scattering orange powder at an Ashes test and the World Snooker Championship.

Their controversial and disruptive tactics have been condemned by athletes and fans alike, but they also garnered sympathy from popular and outspoken soccer pundit Gary Lineker.

"I completely understand where they're coming from, disruptive protest is the only one that gets any publicity. I get it," said Lineker, who presents BBC's 'Match of the Day' soccer highlights programme.

"I also understand why people get so upset with it, particularly in sport. I think what is more important is probably our existence in the future rather than slight disruption of sporting events."

U.S. Open tennis champion Coco Gauff, who has spoken out on various causes, also has no qualms about such protests even though climate activists disrupted her semi-final at Flushing Meadows and one glued his feet to the stand's concrete floor.

"I think that moments like this are history-defining moments," Gauff said. "If that's what they felt they needed to do to get their voices heard, I can't really get upset at it."

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