Sign Up

Sports and Human Rights: Athletes Speak Out

The idea long promoted by international sports federations that sports and politics are unrelated has always been an illusion.

April 14, 2021

At long last, sports governance worldwide is undergoing a fundamental, much-needed change. The presumably noble principle that sports and politics are unrelated has had the legs knocked out from under it.

Yet, national and international sports administrators are slow in realizing the magnitude of what has hit them.

An overdue shift

The overdue shift of the tectonic plates underlying sports’ guiding principle is driven by the struggle against racism and a quest for human rights and social justice.

The principle was repeatedly challenged over the past year mainly by athletes, but also by businesses.
They have been forcing national and international sports federations to accept one of only two options: Either support anti-racist protest or at the least refrain from penalizing athletes who use their sport to oppose racism and promote human rights and social justice — acts that are political by definition.

A convenient fiction

The assault on what is a convenient fiction started in the United States. It came about as a result of the explosion of the “Black Lives Matter” protests on the streets of U.S. cities.

And it was greatly helped by the fact that, in contrast to the fan-club relationship in much of the world, U.S. sports clubs and associations see fans as clients — and the client is king.

In that sense, U.S. capitalism actually ended up delivering the higher moral ground!

Europe gets gutsy as well

The assault moved to Europe in the last month with the national soccer teams of Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands wearing T-shirts during 2022 World Cup qualifiers that supported human rights and change.

The Europeans were adding their voices to perennial criticism of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, the host of next year’s World Cup.

Gareth Southgate, manager of the English national team, said the Football Association was discussing with human rights group Amnesty International tackling migrant rights in the Gulf state.

Beyond Qatar: Today’s Mr. Hamilton

While Qatar is the focus in Europe, greater sensitivity to human rights appears to be moving beyond.

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, in some sense following the thought leadership of his namesake Alexander Hamilton, one of the United States’ “founding fathers,” is using his global prominence to make the issue his cause.

He told a news conference in Bahrain ahead of this season’s opening Grand Prix that “there are issues all around the world, but I do not think we should be going to these countries and just ignoring what is happening in those places, arriving, having a great time and then leave.”

Taking a knee

Mr. Hamilton, speaking out against racial injustice and social inequality, occurs in the footsteps of players in the National Football League in the United States.

Endorsing the cause of Black Lives Matter, players started taking the knee last year during the playing of the U.S. national anthem in protest against racism.

FIFA goes along

In a dramatic break with its longstanding ban on “any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images” on the pitch, world soccer governing body FIFA said it would not open disciplinary proceedings against the European players.

“FIFA believes in the freedom of speech and in the power of football as a force for good,” a spokesperson for the governing body said.

Yes, it’s eminently political

The statement constituted an implicit acknowledgement that standing up for human rights and social justice was inherently political.

It raises the question of how FIFA going forward will reconcile its stand on human rights with its statutory ban on political expression.

Ending the fiction

These moves make maintaining the fiction of a separation of politics and sports ever more difficult to defend.

At long last, the door has been opened to a debate on how the inseparable relationship that joins sports and politics at the hip like Siamese twins should be regulated.

Baseball obliges as well

Signaling that a flood barrier may have collapsed, Major League Baseball this month said it would be moving its 2021 All Star Game out of Atlanta in response to a new Georgia law that threatens to potentially restrict voting access for people of color.

In a shot across the bow to FIFA and other international sports associations, major Georgia-headquartered companies, including Coca Cola, one of the soccer body’s longest-standing corporate sponsors, alongside Delta Airlines and Home Depot adopted political positions in their condemnation of the Georgia law.

The genie is out of the bottle

The willingness of FIFA, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and other national and international associations to look the other way when athletes take their support for rights and social justice to the sports arena has let a genie out of the bottle.

It has sawed off the legs of the FIFA principle that players’ “equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans.”

Already, the U.S. committee has said that it would not sanction U.S. athletes who choose to raise their fists or kneel on the podium at this July’s Tokyo Olympic Games as well as future tournaments.

IOC remains the holdout

The decision puts the USOPC at odds with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) staunch rule against political protest.

Back at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the IOC (in)famously suspended and banned U.S. medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The move ocurred after the sprinters raised their fists on the podium to protest racial inequality in the United States.

Acknowledging the incestuous relationship between sports and politics will ultimately require a charter or code of conduct. It will have to regulate the relationship and introduce some form of independent oversight.

One can imagine that this should be akin to the supervision of banking systems or the regulation of the water sector in Britain, alongside the United States the only country to have privatized water as an asset.

Jimmy Carter must be happy

One man must be happy that human rights and social justice have emerged as monkey wrenches that could shatter the myth of a separation of sports and politics.

That man is none other than Jimmy Carter who had pointed to the relevance and virulence of the human rights issue exactly half a century ago when he became President of the United States.

Anxious Tokyo?

If athletes take their protests to the Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the myth would sustain a significant body blow.

Said a statement by U.S. athletes seeking changes to the USOPC’s rule banning protest at sporting events:
“Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values.”


The presumably noble principle that sports and politics are unrelated has had the legs knocked out from under it.

The shift in attitudes in sports is driven by the struggle against racism and a quest for human rights and social justice.

Major international sports bodies including the #IOC, #MLB, #NFL and #FIFA, are learning that athletes have independent minds.

The new relationship between sports and politics needs a code of conduct and charter to introduce independent oversight.