Champions of social justice
World Day of Social Justice is celebrated every year on 20 February to acknowledge the need to promote social justice, including issues of poverty, gender inequality, unemployment, and human rights. With the world becoming increasingly unequal, working to rectify social injustices is important to build an integrated society.
In order to make an effective and long-lasting impact, social justice should be promoted in spaces that hold the power to question the status quo and existing narratives. Sport is one of the most influential spaces with the ability to endorse diversity, inclusion, unity, and teamwork.
Many athletes and sport personalities have used the platform of sport to act as agents of change and take strong stands on issues of social justice. However, often times their support to social causes have resulted in negative repercussions for their careers and their overall image. Many sport federations explicitly prohibit athletes from supporting social causes – for instance, the International Olympic Committee bans ‘political, social or racial propaganda’ in Olympic venues. Despite these prohibitions, many athletes have put their careers at risk and used their positions to make a point and draw attention to pressing issues.
Here are six trailblazers who have taken a stand and contributed to strengthening social justice over the years.
Muhammad Ali’s refusal to join the army
Muhammad Ali, one of world’s greatest boxers, refused to be drafted in the US Army to serve in the Vietnam War in 1967. Through this stance, he brought attention to the prevalent racism against the black community in United States, but also questioned the credibility of the ongoing war in Vietnam.
This was one of the boldest stands to be taken by a sport personality, as Ali was at the prime of his boxing career. His actions resulted in a five-year sentence and a $10,000 fine for him, and he was able to participate in boxing again only in 1971, when his conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court.
Marcus Rashford on food poverty
Marcus Rashford is an English football player, who also plays for Manchester United. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rashford was actively involved in raising funds to provide meals for vulnerable people in the UK. He has been expressive of wanting to work towards eradicating hunger, as he has personally witnessed his mother’s struggles to feed her five children.
Recently, he also set up a taskforce, in collaboration with other food charities, to end child food poverty in England. Having personally experienced hunger and poverty, Rashford’s dedication and sincerity towards this cause is an example of leveraging positions of power for the better good.
Dutee Chand for gender inclusivity
Dutee Chand became the first Indian athlete to publicly speak about her same-sex relationship after homosexuality was decriminalized in India. Chand’s status as a former Olympian and the first Indian sprinter to have won a gold medal in an international competition has contributed to spotlighting and strengthening the LGBTQ+ movement in India. Though her family disapproved of her relationship, she remains courageous and continues to defy societal expectations.
Chand has also been openly critical of the mandatory gender testing rules in athletics. When she was banned from competing in 2014 due to her naturally high levels of testosterone, she went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and won the case, paving the path for other athletes facing similar bans. Chand has also extended support for other female athletes who have been subjected to similar gender testing rulings – she condemned CAS’s ruling on Caster Semenya’s case, and continues to criticize the problematic gender testing policies of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF).
Billie Jean King for equal pay
Tennis champion Billie Jean King is a pioneer of equal pay movement in sports. King reformed tennis through her constant activism for gender equality, forming the Women’s Tennis Association which was founded on the principle equal opportunity for women in sports. Her relentless fight for gender equality in sports pioneered the move to equalize prize money for men and women at Grand Slams and made the Title IX legislation in the US possible, which prohibits educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of gender.
King’s revolutionary work has inspired other female athletes to fight their battles against pay inequality, as it continues to be a relevant issue in the field of sports.
Collin Kaepernick against racism
In 2016, American football player Collin Kaepernick chose to take a knee during the national anthem at the start of National Football League (NFL) games, to protest against racial prejudice in the American society. In addition to emboldening the battle against racism in the USA, this brave move got Kaepernick worldwide praise and honours like the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.
However, Kaepernick was not signed on by any other team from 2017 onwards, with many suggesting he was blacklisted by the was ousted by the NFL. His football career prematurely ended due to his stand against racism – he hasn’t played a single game since January 2017, and he is yet to be signed on by a team.
Khalida Popal for equal opportunity for girls and refugees
Khalida Popal, former captain of Afghanistan’s national women’s football team and a human rights activist, is known for vocalizing her support for women’s participation in sport in Afghanistan. After fleeing Afghanistan in 1996 when the Taliban took over, she fought against societal expectations and norms to play football in the refugee camp in Pakistan. In 2007, after the fall of the Taliban, she formed the country’s first women’s national football team.
In 2011, she was forced to flee her native country due to the death threats she kept receiving for her role in forming the women’s team. She is settled in Denmark but continued to work for the rights of Afghan women and girls and other displaced persons to play sports. She was instrumental in exposing the abuse meted out by Keramuudin Karim, then president of the Afghanistan football federations, against the women’s national team players. FIFA’s investigations found him guilty and he was banned from office.
When the Taliban took over the country again in 2021, Popal was instrumental in rescuing and ensuring the safe passage of Afghanistan’s female football players from the country.
A collective battle against social injustice
There are many more individual athletes that have spoken out for social justice. And apart from individuals, there have been other instances where teams or collectives have taken a stance for social justice.
At the current Winter Olympics in Beijing, several countries, including US,UK, Canada, Lithuania declared a diplomatic boycott of the Games due to China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. Some other examples of boycotts of the Olympics include the 1980 Moscow Games, which many countries did not attend due to the USSR invasion of Afghanistan and the 1956 Games in Melbourne, which was boycotted by some countries in response to the Suez crisis.
Often times, whole teams have come together to demand social justice. At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the German gymnastics team chose to wear ankle-length unitards instead of bikini-cut leotards to challenge the sexualization of women in gymnastics. At the same Games, players of the US Women’s national football team took a knee before the bronze medal match to protest against racism and discrimination. In 2014, five players of the St. Louis Rams, an American football team, took to the field and put their hands up, to protest Michael Brown’s murder in Fergusson.
While these teams and individuals have been courageously contested the status quo, sport institutions and federations have often shied away from acting upon social and political issues. However, the tides are changing, as some sport federations have begun extending support to social justice campaigns. For instance, FIFA launched an initiative in 2021 to fight racism in football.
There is still a long way to go in fighting against social injustice, but the sports world is taking note and taking charge of their responsibilities. With popular athletes and teams expressing their support for various social causes, sport is increasingly being recognised as a platform for social justice movements.
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