It was 1990 and Michael Jordan was on his way to becoming the most famous human being on the planet. In his home state of North Carolina, an African American Democrat named Harvey Gantt was opposing the incumbent white Republican, Jesse Helms. Even card-carrying racist homophobes considered Helms to be a bit extreme.
Jordan was under pressure to speak up and publicly endorse Gantt, but he chose to remain quiet. In the documentary series, The Last Dance, Jordan admitted that in an off-the-cuff yarn with teammates, he joked “Republicans buy sneakers too”.
Joking or not, both Jordan himself and Barack Obama did a good job of explaining the difficult position he was in. As a young man peddling the NBA and Air Jordans, he wasn’t exactly free to be himself. With all the implicit expectations, he wanted to stay as far away from politics as possible.
It was obviously a different time, but the resurfacing of Jordan’s quip today feels prophetic. Since the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has roared back to life, taking on added significance, dismantling institutions and picking up influential voices of support from all over the world.
The impact has been breathtaking. And while it seems crass to admit, one of the most significant aspects of its success has been its adoption by brands and corporations. That these bodies have too much power is a moot point. But by finally succumbing to pressure, they have helped to make a previously subversive movement “mainstream”.
Colin Kaepernick’s story is well known. In 2016, the quarterback took a knee during the US national anthem to protest against racism and police brutality. His intentions were misrepresented; he was ostracised by the NFL, victimised by Donald Trump and went on to lose his job.
Four long years after his career was taken away, some good news would emerge from tragedy. Barely a week after that police officer put a knee on George Floyd’s neck, the chairperson of the NFL was pressured into making a statement apologising to Kaepernick and others. He encouraged all players to speak out and protest peacefully. He admitted that the NFL had been wrong.
And while the country was grappling with its two increasingly disparate identities, NASCAR, an institution all but wrapped up in the Confederate flag, decided to ban that flag altogether; a move that fundamentally challenged the actions and beliefs of millions of its fans.
Professional sport in America is akin to religion. The new opiate of the masses is the most hotly contested battleground in their polarised cultural landscape. But the NFL and NASCAR don’t move the needle. They are the needle that’s being moved. Their policy changes weren’t impulsive acts of courage, but long overdue responses, hastened by the protests happening all over the country.
The organisations themselves are not inherently racist, sexist or evil. They’re just big, cumbersome, capitalist machines that don’t believe in anything.
What does this mean for South Africa?
We are fighting our own injustices: gender-based violence, ruling party corruption and white indifference to our own systemic racism, among many others. But it feels as though we can learn something as we face up to these challenges.
Sports stars, their employers and the sponsors they endorse are in a position of great influence. They should wield this influence by speaking out and championing issues where right and wrong is set in stone.
Even that is no walk in the park. Lungi Ngidi, South Africa’s men’s ODI and T20 Cricketer-of-the-Year, recently suggested that the Proteas continue the fight for equality and justice by showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This was met with a number of ex-Proteas stirring up the ridiculous “all lives matter” response and calling for the Proteas to make a similar stand against farm attacks.
It’s messy enough when the cause is clear cut. Throw in nuance, ignorance and the “what about me” crowd, and you may well ask if it’s worth it. Just bear in mind that both sports fans and leaders will decry political interference in sport when they’re happy with the status quo, but inevitably politicise it when they’re not.
Our sporting heroes need the explicit backing of their employers, the governing bodies and their sponsors. On their own, they’re vulnerable. Their platform is restricted and their message curtailed. But when they’re aligned and delivering an unshakable narrative, they have the ability to hold a mirror up to an adoring public. Sporting heroes, brands and governing organisations together are uniquely positioned to accelerate and legitimise positive change.
This is not to say that we don’t need the likes of Siya Kolisi, marching off onto Instagram and fighting the good fight on his own (whether we deserve him is another story). It’s to say that SARU and their corporate partners should be beating a path to his door to help deliver his message, while slightly whiter role models should also be persuaded to take a stand.
As for the father of our nation, I like to think his message to all silent stakeholders would be:
“Don’t wait for the people to rise up. Don’t wait until you no longer have a say in the matter. Institutional change is coming. You would do well to be proactive and be on the right side of history when it does.” DM