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Athletes or Diplomats in tracksuits?

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

There is a history around athletes building bridges between nations and supporting social justice agendas, a parallel to what state representatives – diplomats – do. Sports diplomacy is a unique channel of communication between athletes and their audience. Consequently, this has produced a greater responsibility on athletes as representatives.

While in North Korea (DPRK), Dennis Rodman received an invitation from leader Kim Jong-un, a fan of the basketball player since the 1990s. This meeting allowed Rodman to open the channels of communication between the USA and DPRK with his athlete star power, a process that helped diffusing tensions between the two world leaders by creating a goodwill environment (Park, 2017).

However, unfortunately, not all athletes have been treated with the same respect given to the game. ‘While we are perceived in one way in uniform…when you step out of uniform you are perceived another way in society’ – Isiah Thomas (NBATV)

This became undeniably apparent on Wednesday 26th August 2020, where NBA and WNBA athletes used their platform and refused to play because of racial tensions. Sport uses its universal language to create tangible powerful images and stories enhanced by media coverage to strategically alter or reinforce stereotypes, attitudes and perceptions to their audience (Tiessen, 2011).

Athletes and diplomats mirror one another, as both possess the ability to communicate and negotiate as representatives on multi-dimensional levels, adding a twist of their personal journey that built their winning personas. They are often referred to as ‘diplomats in tracksuits’ (Murray, 2012). Marcus Rashford, a 22 year old footballer’, put himself on the line to ensure British children of deprived families receive free school meals. His status as a prestigious footballer was instrumental to the outcome of governmental decision on this and gave a support to struggling households.

Most recently, many basketball players have spoken out on Black Lives Matter movement. For the first time in the sports world, the NBA set an example by allowing players to challenge the issue by removing their last name on the jerseys and replacing them with messages of social justice (Stebbins, 2020). This strategy openly allowed players to show direct representation and use the sporting platform to support a movement of their choice. The extent of influence this example will have on the rest of the sports world is yet to be seen. The NBA and WNBA have made it clear that the rest of the season is in jeopardy due to racial tensions within the US. It is evident that the NBA athletes are creating a historic movement on and off the court. This unified stance has sparked support from other professional sports such as the Major Soccer League.

One can only hope that this will continue to influence narratives within sport and push for a substantial change. Research has found that there is racial bias in the way, European commentators talk about football players (Smith, 2020).

There was a trend revealed enforcing stereotypes of ‘brain vs brawn’ which transpired to the highest level of the game (Ibid). Therefore, provoking further questions of; what other sports does this happen in? Why has this been allowed to go on for so long? Sadly recognising that if athletes are treated this way, it is likely discrimination is allowed all the way up sporting hierarchies and question whether initiatives to combat it may debatably be no more than an ineffective ‘tickbox exercise’? The time has never been more momentous for us to open these discussions and change the sporting narratives. It is about time that athletes received the respect they so patiently have hoped and waited for.

In times of questionable governance, it is becoming apparent that a greater burden is being placed on the integrity of athletes to be leaders and preserve the image of sport. A moment should be spent to appreciate the courage of NBA and WNBA’s athletes and their use of their platform to request solidarity both inside and outside of sporting institutions. Despite the 2020 NBA and WNBA boycotts creating a political historical event, the true ripple effects of it are yet to be seen within the sports sphere. Simply because athletes are good team players on and off the court they should not have to compromise or be compromised by sporting or any other institution to uphold the value of fair play and integrity.

Miss Aashika Doshi, affiliated researcher, School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS), University of London 

Blog posts represent the views of the author and not that of Sport&EU or its members

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