Are you a fan of the footie? When you take in a game, are you cheering for individual players, your team as a whole... or the political and social causes they embrace?

This question comes to light in the wake of Chelsea Club owner, Roman Abramovich's turmoil. This unusual case lays bare a host of controversial issues, from corporate and foreign money in football (that may or may not have been illicitly gained) to whether individuals can and should be held accountable for corporate sponsorship demands and what their governments do.

Controversial politics in football:
- James McClean won't wear a political symbol, the poppy. He faces considerable wrath from fans, particularly on Remembrance Day, for not doing so.
- Racism is prevalent throughout the sport; the latest prominent example of such is the reaction to English players who missed the penalties during the Euro 2020 England-Italy match.
- Christian Ronaldo faced a massive corporate backlash for removing two bottles of their signature drink at a press conference.
- The plan to form a European Super League was scrapped after massive outcry that poorer clubs would be disadvantaged and fears of racism.

We can see, from this abbreviated list, that Mr Abramovich's case is not the first political incident to roil the world of sports; far from it. Let's take a quick look at some other high-profile cases of football and politics crashing into one another.

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Marcus Rashford's Free Lunch

Nobody could fault Marcus Rashford's initiative to keep kids fed during the coronavirus lockdowns. Food insecurity is one of the sorriest blights on our rich nation. That he's working to remedy the situation of so many children not having enough to eat were it not for no-cost school lunches is the least that could be done. By anyone.

Marcus Rasher does everything he can to help end child hunger
Marcus Rashford, himself from an impoverished background, does what he can to help end child hunger. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Oleg Bkhambri

The controversial issue isn't Mr Rashford's activism; it's the selective nature of football leagues' embrace of social causes. What makes some causes worthy and others not? The guiding principle seems to be if the issue at hand has universal support, it also garners league support. One may also posit that supporting causes with minimal downsides raises leagues' profiles meaning that, in the end, the league benefits.

Mr Rashford's campaign to keep kids fed highlights the leagues' 'Don't rock the boat' stance.

Economist Stefan Szymanski avers that, overall, the league's general attitude is 'Endorse and support the status quo' rather than 'Use your platform to do good'. Indeed, the level of activism Mr Rashford engaged in "could set uncomfortable precedents", the Premier League chief executive recently confessed in an interview.

The preference for players to serve as cheerleaders for the current socio-political and economic climate is, in itself, a political statement. It also underscores the trouble with football club ownership. We'll talk more about that later in this article.

Pep Guardiola Wears Yellow

Catalan independence is a particularly thorny political issue revolving around a disputed referendum that led to the Catalan Parliament declaring their region's independence. The Spanish government did not concur. They voted to remove the Catalan government and arrested seven of its ministers, charging them with misuse of public funds and rebellion.

As the dust settled in Spain, native Catalonian footballer-turned-coach Pep Guardiola of Man City started wearing a discreet yellow ribbon on the pitch. In no time at all, he was fined £20,000 - and that, despite some of his more controversial moves, such as replacing Joe Hart with a goalkeeper one might arguably call a crony from his old Barcelona club.

The irony was that he wore the ribbon concealed under his jacket for the full first half of the game; it was only accidentally revealed during the second half. Also ironic is that he's been permitted to wear the ribbon, unconcealed, during practice sessions and pre- and post-game activities. Just not during the game.

Again, the line of demarcation appears to be whether the activism will provoke a political backlash and, more importantly, a financial hit to the club in question.

Colin Kaepernick Takes a Knee

Across the pond, football is a completely different sport that involves players deliberately crashing into one another while wearing lots of padding and safety gear. And, while footie is all about footwork - hands don't get to touch the ball unless you're a goalkeeper, in American football, the pigskin (slang for the ball in this game) gets handed off. Kicking only happens in specific conditions.

Despite its high profile, American football is not known for its activism as much as it is for its controversies, both of individual players and whole teams.

Cheerleaders hardly earn anything.
The pretty girls standing on the side lines barely earn anything compared to the players they cheer on. Photo by Fredrick Lee on Unsplash

One glaring controversy is the pay across the board. The players earn millions from the league and from product endorsements but cheerleaders, those pretty girls that flounce around in next to nothing barely earn enough to live on. Furthermore, they're expected to attend events outside of their duties as side-line dancers; events they often don't get paid for.

But then, they're not the only women in sports who have to fight for pay equality. And that's not the only inequality in (American) sports deserving of a fight.

At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement but before George Floyd, Colin Kaepernick 'took a knee' while the National Anthem played. According to the National Football League handbook, his action was perfectly legal; that manual specifically states that football players may stand or sit for the duration of that song.

The backlash was immediate and severe. It culminated in Mr Kaepernick being blacklisted from the sport but, along the way, various important figures made their feelings about 'taking a knee' known, loud and clear. That includes the then-president, whose colourful language left no room for doubt about how such protests should be handled and what should happen to the players who engage in them.

Despite never being charged with sports doping or any other offence, Mr Kaepernick's brilliance as an American football player will remain in the shadows, perhaps forever. But that's okay, his dignified protest of racial injustice has fuelled a global movement.

Things can't get much more political than that.

The Trouble With Ownership

The Roman Abramovich case shines a spotlight on some of the worst aspects of club ownership from a public perspective.

Mr Abramovich is cited as the most generous philanthropist Russia ever spawned:

  • donations in excess of $2.5 billion for schools, hospitals and infrastructure in the Russian province of Chukotka
    • he donated an additional £1.5 billion to his Pole of Hope charity, which directs charitable efforts in that region
  • donations of more than $5oo million to the Jewish cause in Russia and around the world
  • he paid to plant 25,000 trees in memory of Lithuanian Jews
  • he funds a programme to unite Arab and Jewish children through football. The programme is called Playing Fair, Leading Peace
  • during the worst of the COVID pandemic, he paid for NHS nurses' accommodations in hotels so they wouldn't have to travel so far to and from work.

These are all good deeds that positively impact the public. Should it matter, then, that Mr Abramovich finagled his way into the UK - legally, but finagling nevertheless? Should it matter that he made his money questionably if he's now using it to benefit humanity? Or does his association with a now-murderous political enemy outweigh all the good he's done?

All too often, moral and ethical questions like those are treated as political imperatives, in sports and everywhere else.

Club owners don't mind raking in profits but don't like to support social causes
Football club owners are happy to collect the profits their players generate but are less enthused about supporting the social causes they embrace. Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

As mentioned earlier, football club owners prefer to keep a low profile. They're happy to entertain and earn their profits but they don't want to make waves. They don't want their players to make waves, either, and that's how we get to the heart of what's wrong with club ownership.

Essentially, they're structured like any other business: you have the guy(s) in charge; they're the clubs' owners. Their mandates are profits and wins, usually in that order. Then come the managers; let's call them coaches and, finally the players who do all the heavy lifting. They generate profits and maintain the clubs' high profile.

Whether club owners engage in philanthropy is quite apart from permitting their players to engage in activism, on or off the field, no matter how worthy the cause or how unobtrusively they do so. In a sense, it's a reflection of the 'We don't pay you to think' mentality that, for so long, has permeated the corporate culture.

That's just one negative aspect of club ownership; another is who owns them.

Most of the Premier League and EFL Championship owners are foreign investors who hold substantial stakes in those clubs. They bring with them their business culture and economic ideas, along with the social values their countries hold dear. These different views and values influence their clubs' socio-political attitudes and dictate which causes they will stand behind and those they will fine their players for.

Nobody can say that football is not political. This sport has always been political and it should continue to be.

Socially-conscious athletes like Marcus Rashford and Colin Kaepernick often come to their views because they were once on the receiving end of injustice or inequality. All over the world, athletes use the platforms they worked so hard to earn in just such a manner. Along the way, they sway public sentiment in favour of their cause and that public sentiment often leads to political action.

These individual athletes are, in fact, practising sports diplomacy, something entire teams of athletes practise every two years, during Olympic competitions. Theirs is just of a more homegrown variety.

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