Download Marcus Rashford’s Triumph May Be Start Of A New Bravery
“We live in a society that sees significant success, and that has an added burden. A lot of the time, America is quick to embrace a Michael Jordan, or an Oprah Winfrey, or a Barack Obama, so long as it’s understood that you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice.”
So begins Barack Obama’s analysis of Jordan’s own political agnosticism in ‘The Last Dance’, the great Netflix series about basketball’s complex, unyielding leading man. It is an exquisitely awkward part of Jordan’s legacy that, 30 years ago, he refused to back publicly a black Democrat candidate, Harvey Gantt, against an incumbent with racist views. Three decades on and the 1990 North Carolina Senate race is a wound that’s still painful to the touch.
Even for Jordan, a life in sport was also a life in politics – be that politics of race or otherwise. As it was for Muhammad Ali, or the first black footballers in English football whose mere presence was itself a statement about the changes in British society and who were invariably obliged to suffer for it.
Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling follow in a convention that feels inevitable. It is simpler to do nothing, as Jordan once resolved, even if that does not absolve you of a place in the debate. The first choice that Rashford and Sterling have made is not to do nothing.
For black athletes, as Jordan discovered, and Obama reflected, the pressure is immense. The expectation is first for success, both of the sporting kind and commercially, and then when that is achieved, so the larger question muscles its way in. What more can you do? It is not one so commonly asked of white footballers, although some have tried.
It is the inheritance of the black sportsman or woman that they alone must lead certain causes by virtue of their race. The long NFL exile of Colin Kaepernick is a reminder of the insidious power of the machine of big sport to grind an individual down, to weather the storm of indignation and to gradually move that dissenter to the edges.
There will be few political interventions executed with the sophistication of Rashford’s, forcing UK government policy to change in just a few days.
A universal message to which everyone could agree, delivered by a spokesman whose credibility was unimpeachable. There is a long-held wisdom in newspapers that one should never launch a campaign that cannot be won swiftly.
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Yet Rashford’s drive on the free school-meal voucher scheme had a compelling sense of jeopardy about the outcome which added to its dynamism. What can be learned from it?
That single-issue campaigns, with achievable goals, are possible and with them comes the incremental change that alter the bigger picture. Sterling’s “Time for Change” video will precede a campaign to raise black representation on the boards of British sporting bodies where the numbers, just three per cent on those receiving public funds, are jaw-dropping.
It is not impossible to imagine one year from now that a concerted effort from Sterling and the kind of high-profile players he can enlist would make a difference.
The pressure never goes away. “It’s never going to be enough for everyone,” says Jordan as he considers the ocean of demands placed upon him. “I know that. Because everyone has a preconceived idea in terms of what they think I should do.”
That is on top of the day job, too. How modern athletes can manage that pressure is critical to their playing careers and ultimately to their success. For the next generation of footballers, campaigning on issues of race, or politics, the expectation is becoming immense.
Speaking on behalf of the Uighur Muslims in China saw Mesut Ozil cancelled from a market so lucrative in a nation state so powerful that as the story blew across the planet, Arsenal shuffled slowly back into the proverbial hedge, Homer Simpson-style.
In the debate over Catalan independence, while elected politicians and cultural figures were imprisoned, Pep Guardiola’s yellow ribbons invited the enduring hostility of the Spanish state. These aims were laudable, in both cases, but you can see why the individuals must have felt swallowed up by it all. Lost in a bigger game in which their visibility was turned against them.
The cause often seeks out one individual when its burden could so often be shared. The Republican senator Jesse Helms, against whom Jordan did not take up arms in 1990, considered HIV to be divine punishment on the gay community; he opposed US foreign aid being used for abortions; he was in favour of racial segregation.
If ever there was an example of history repeating itself, Helms, in the 1970s, even opposed food-stamp provision – free meals – for deprived US schoolchildren.
There was something in the late Helms for everyone to dislike. Why should it have just fallen upon Jordan?
As for Jordan himself, still presenting as emphatically apolitical in the documentary, the last few weeks have seen him and his Jordan brand pledge $100 million to the Black Lives Matter campaign. It suggests that this aspect of his life, which has shadowed him as closely and uncomfortably as any opponent on the court ever could, is now finally to be confronted.
As Rashford and Sterling consider their new status as activists on questions of social values, race and, inevitably politics, it is worth bearing in mind. They cannot change the world over a weekend any more than Jordan, the greatest sportsman of his era, could.
But with shrewdly identified targets and the support of their wider profession – such as the collective taking of a knee before both games yesterday – they also need not feel his desolation at the expectation. They will need that support because with every win, so the expectation grows bigger, and the list longer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)