UK’s Marcus Rashford showed an elite sportsperson can use popularity and influence to speak out for social change. But it is not something that happens nearly enough in India.

Rashford, Kohli, Dhawan, Sindhu, Saina Nehwal
Voices Opinion Wednesday, January 20, 2021 - 19:39

Many are now familiar with Marcus Rashford’s story. At the start of 2020, he was already a football star and a household name in the United Kingdom (UK). But in the early days of the lockdown, Rashford helped raise nearly £20 million to provide meals for vulnerable people reminding the British public about his personal experiences of growing up with a single parent who struggled to feed her five children.

He did not stop there. In June, he stepped up his activism and charity work when it seemed like the UK government would not provide free school meals during the summer break. Rashford wrote an open letter, published on social media and in national newspapers, requesting the government to continue the scheme. The government backtracked and Prime Minister Boris Johnson rang up Rashford to inform him that the government will offer a summer food fund for school children.

Rashford now has a popularity and appeal beyond sports. He was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his voluntary work while some have even joked he is the unofficial Leader of the Opposition in the UK with constant headlines of his activism forcing the government into U-turns. 

Just last week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, “I totally agree with you @MarcusRashford, these food parcels do not meet the standards we set out and we have made it clear to the company involved that this is disgraceful.” This was in response to Rashford’s criticism of the food parcels provided by the government.

The concept might seem simple - an elite sportsperson using his popularity and influence to speak out for social change. But it is not something that happens nearly enough in India.

The way football is romanticised in the UK, cricket is revered in India but even though there are elite cricketers who endorse charities, activism and speaking out against injustice is something most cricketers, and other athletes, are eager to stay away from.

This is despite the kind of year 2020 was for common citizens in India as it grappled with a pandemic.

The silence 

Hardly any active sportspersons spoke about the protests against the Centre’s farm laws. Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli deflected questions about the Citizenship Amendment (Act) protests in 2020 saying he does not know enough about it to comment. Most cricketers restrained themselves to condemning violence, which broke out between the police and students amid the biggest protest in India in 45 years.

During the lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, India’s elite sportspersons, apart from posting fitness videos, shared their contributions to charitable efforts including the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. Scouring through social media, one finds posts by stars like PV Sindhu, Shikhar Dhawan and Sachin Tendulkar about their contributions.

But not one sportsperson initiated dialogue with the central or state government even though the country’s bureaucracy moved from one crisis to the next - the rise in coronavirus cases, the woes of migrant workers walking thousands of kilometres to reach home and the challenges of feeding those who stayed put. For five months in Karnataka, school children were not given the meals they would otherwise get through the mid-day meal scheme due to a bureaucratic delay and the issue flew under the radar unlike in the UK. 

One reason for the silence is straightforward. There are risks for those who choose to speak out. Not everyone speaking out is considered a national treasure like Rashford is now. Remember Colin Kaepernick, the American football star? When he knelt during the United States national anthem before NFL games in 2016 to protest against racial injustice and police brutality, he was a quarterback in his prime playing for the San Francisco 49ers. By the end of that season, he was without a team and he remains a free agent till this day.

History has more such examples - Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing and sentenced to prison for refusing to be drafted into the US military during the Vietnam war; Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Games for giving a Black Power salute on the podium. The Netflix Documentary ‘The Last Dance’ reminded us about the famous moment American basketball player Michael Jordan chose to be tight-lipped - “Republicans buy sneakers, too” were the words attributed to him over his refusal to publicly back Harvey Gantt, an African-American Democrat running against the incumbent Republican Jesse Helms, an unabashed racist.

Similarly in India, sportspersons are wary about what they tell the media. They continuously interact with their audience - the Indian public - as businesses endorsing brands but put forward a sensitive topic and almost all of them toe the line even when these topics affect the same people who make up their fanbase.

Even though the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is independent, its secretary is now Jay Shah, the son of Union Home Minister Amit Shah who is closely associated with the new Citizenship Act. Most athletes involved in Olympic sport have relied on the state's infrastructure at some point in their careers. Some have benefited directly through the government sports quota.  

So it's only expected that they will be wary of this when they open their social media accounts and stare at the magnitude of their influence - of being able to speak with a global audience directly. It becomes standard operating procedure to not take sides and stick to sound bites like “I do not know enough to comment”.

Despite this, a few in sport have spoken out choosing their words with caution. Aakash Chopra, Irfan Pathan and Harbhajan Singh were among the cricketers who spoke about the police crackdown on students in universities in Delhi in early 2020. All three called for an end to violence and showed concern for the students clashing with police officers. However, none of them are athletes in their prime today or in the sports celebrity category that Virat Kohli belongs to.

Badminton star Jwala Gutta was another sportsperson who was not only quick to condemn violence but also urged sportspersons to speak out during the crackdown over the CAA protests. She has spoken out on various issues from questioning the celebration of the encounter of those accused in the 2019 Hyderabad rape case to pledging her support for the ‘Save Nallamalla’ environmental campaign.

The same people - Irfan Pathan and Jwala Gutta - along with a few others like footballer Darren Caldeira - consistently used their platform for highlighting injustices in the past year. Some others chipped in with personal contributions like footballer CK Vineeth who worked in a COVID-19 helpline centre in Kerala and his compatriot Jeje Lalpekhlua from Mizoram, who donated blood.

But the efforts were much smaller in comparison to the support Marcus Rashford managed to galvanise. When MPs voted against the free school meal plan in October 2020, he issued a clarion call that led to local communities and small businesses pitching in to make meals available to those who needed it. Rashford took to Twitter to pin locations across Britain where people got in touch with him to help. He researched and built a network of organisations fighting hunger. This eventually forced the UK government into a U-turn on the issue.

Rashford spoke with a sense of compassion, ignoring how a global pandemic affected him, an international football star, and instead thinking of how it affected those around him - the common public. In the flood of interviews he gave, it was clear that Rashford’s instinct was to think of his life before he reached his superstar status. And in Indian sport, there is no shortage of rags-to-riches stories similar to Rashford’s. 

Maybe it is time for some of them to take the next step - use their superstar status and call out the next political leader inciting violence or indulging in hate speech, or call for action the next time students in universities are attacked by masked mobs and the police or when children are denied school meals.

Prajwal Bhat is a journalist reporting for The News Minute from Bengaluru.

Views are the author's own. 

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