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Professional sports and the social justice movement

Copyrights: Simone Galimberti

Professional sports and the social justice movement

With the Black Lives Matter movement, we have a unique chance not only to address the grievances of minority players worldwide but also an opportunity to fix professional sports for good.

Reading about the repercussions from the Black Lives Matter protests in the world of professional sports leagues in the USA and elsewhere, you really start thinking that a time of reckoning has come for the sports industry.

Based on a business model whose underpinnings are based on a logic of profit maximisation, most professional sports are driven by a small group of decision makers, a cast that lacks diversity and inclusiveness and often represents the worst of capitalism.

The model at its core is simple: turn a limited number of players, many of which are from minority groups, into millionaire icons and squeeze them the most thanks to the art of marketing dealmaking that thrives on commercial endorsements, TV and streaming rights.

Perhaps we are just at the beginning of a big turnaround.  

I am saying “perhaps” because for the innumerable private conglomerates that endorsed the protests, most of them out of self-interest, we are staring at two options ahead for professional sports organisations.

They can go on with a false pretense that tomorrow will be better for many African-Americans and other minority players around the world, including aboriginal athletes in Australia. Call this an enlightened or moderate but certainly not progressive approach.

The opposite instead could involve a long process of introspection, of resetting and rebooting of the entire industry whose outcomes could potentially redefine the way we imagine of professional sports.

One thing is sure, empty declarations won’t be tolerated anymore, but would the industry and the athletes themselves master the bravery needed to change for good professional sports?

Will the symbolic messages written on the back of NBA players’ t-shirts usher in a new era in sports as well in the society?

Will all the major pro leagues in the USA, Australia and in Europe be able to reinvent themselves, including sacrificing a part of their profits in order to help create a better society? Can they use their prowess to rediscover the original purpose of sports?

Probably an answer to all these questions is a resounding “no,” but still what is happening could offer an opportunity to reflect on what professional sports could become one day.

It is not just about recognizing the legitimate right of many players of color to protest on behalf of their communities.

It is not just about acknowledging the patterns of exploitation on which these businesses have been thriving for so long.

It is not even about just admitting structural inequalities entrenched in the society or the existence of deep forms of racism embedded in them.

This is about rethinking the role and the mission of sports in the twenty-first century, returning back to its origins based on the quest for joy, satisfaction and personal betterment.

We should not forget that once, even the highest forms of sports were not run professionally and the best players were amateurs.

It is only with the roaring years of capitalism that sports became more and more professionalised. The marketing soon took a giant jump in the world of sports and conquered it. Professionalisation started outshining grassroots forms of sports and it all became a multi-billion dollar business, an end in itself rather to a better society.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with professionalization in itself, but it went too far and we lost sight of the original mission of sports and with it, we started neglecting its educational functions. Instead professional sports thrived on a “more and more” model: more money from commercial TV rights, more money from the sponsors, more greediness from the players compounded by more lavish lifestyles.

Becoming a professional athlete in the North of the world started symbolising success, recognition, visibility and, for a smaller number of players, the doors to stardom, with millions of followers ready to worship you.

The “more and more” system enabled commercial sponsors to becoming the dominating engine of sports paying billions in endorsements in returns of even bigger economic returns.

The consequence was a hyper-commercialization of sports, a mirror of larger trends in the society, watering down and overshadowing the original foundations of sports no matter how much clubs and leagues would commit to community engagement programs, including educational programs in schools.

These initiatives, surely beneficial to many kids and local communities, alone won’t reverse the inequity at the foundation of professional sports.

How can we shift professional sports back to its original essence?

Perhaps the ongoing movement for social justice could help change this status quo for better.

  • This is part one of a two-part essay series. Mr. Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, Inclusive Change Through Volunteering


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Thursday, July 30, 2020 - 11:41

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