White sport or black lives matter: is there room for claiming rights in competition?
8 Mar 2021   ·   

It made the news in June, and a change of attitude took place from one of the most commercially successful star players: Michael Jordan. He announced that the Jordan brand would donate $100,000,000 in ten years to organisations fighting racism. Nike, as a manufacturer, would add another 40 million. It seems coherent in order to reach their audience in 2020, the year in which the Black Lives Matter anti-racist manifestations has created a big impact. But it was also unusual coming from Jordan, an athlete who has always advocated for sports without ideologies. Both conservative and progressive people could buy sports attire and tickets to sports events, and there was no reason to repel them from going to the stands. Now the question is: does this principle withstand in today’s global sports?

Jordan has not done anything revolutionary. He’s joined a dynamic initiated by the big leagues. Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, together with his teams and players, announced in June that the league would work actively to fight racial inequality and to help minorities in their strive for education. The NFL followed changing its mind, since just a couple of years before the directors of their teams had agreed off the record, not to renew Colin Kaepernick’s contract. This black player used to kneel on the ground before every match, an act of protest against the black community being abused in the United States. Suddenly, NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, admitted they had been wrong not to listen to their players’ claims for rights, and that he “disapproved the black systematic oppression”. The baseball league, although in a less striking way, also finally followed this trend.

This change is an adjustment to the society’s and fans’ demands, which brands identified before the very leagues did. In 2018, celebrating the 30 years of their famous slogan “Just Do It”, Nike launched a campaign with a picture of Kaepernick and the phrase “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it”. The immediate effect was a crash in the stock market, but they also recovered the brand leadership against the competition. Nike laid the basis that an athlete’s attitude off the field is as important to a brand as their success on it, and that a modern company cannot fail to get involved in social causes. Two years later, nobody questions this principle in global sports. Not even the NFL, having a portion of their fans feeling offended by this campaign, promoting the alternative slogan “JustBurnIt”. The league, instead, signed a sponsorship contract with Nike for a thousand million dollars until 2028.

As sponsors, brands influence sports and vice versa. However, it is the audience who ultimately decides what they want to see in the competition. Today’s fans still want to feel close to their team’s colours, their leagues, and the values of the competition on and off the pitch. For the new generations, these values must include social matters in which they are immersed, and non-discrimination based on race is just one of them, as well as protecting the environment, just to mention some. The US is leading the change on which the young audience engagement will depend, and this is also happening in European football in a less intense way.

There are plenty of racism issues in this sport, and this has not been ignored by the governing bodies. FIFA, that had not changed its measures against racism in fifteen years, updated and reinforced them in 2019. Its tough sanctions are not preventing serious cases from occurring, even now that games are being played without an audience. In December last year, during the game between Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir, the footballers of both teams decided not to keep playing. The fourth referee had launched a racist insult to the Cameroonian Pierre Webó, member of the coaching staff of the Turkish team. This type of incidents had always occurred in the stands, and having taken place among the coaching staff or the referees shows how significant this issue is. On top of the players’ and the governing bodies’ interest to fight it, the UEFA and the European Parliament stated last December that both institutions “have a long-shared vision of European football as a force for good”.

The question of whether sports can continue to be white after 2021, and disconnected from any concern for the society in which it takes place, has already been answered. Before the pandemic is over and the stadiums go back to normal, everybody, teams, and leagues, will have had to take a position thinking not only about their own country, but also about their fans from different countries, cultures and races that follow their sports events. The fact that their fans continue to have sports competitions as one of their leisure priorities depends on this.

Martín Sacristán 


Building the future of the sports industry