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Activist athletes - Megan Rapinoe success and charisma


Defiance pays dividends for Rapinoe & Co

Published 11 March 2021 in Magazine • 7 min read

After years of top athletes being shunned for their social activism, stars such as Naomi Osaka and Marcus Rashford are now being embraced by major sponsors. It’s a team effort where everyone can be a winner, writes Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff.

Today’s athlete activism is facilitated by sports diplomacy thanks to the industry’s globalizing cauldron, and notable for its worldwide force. It’s clear that no team can exist now without purpose and this extends to brands. As a result, industry leaders must now weigh how to use the power of their platforms to support civil and human rights as part of their business development, consumer engagement and brand reputation calculations.

The United States has a heritage of athlete political and civic engagement. American athletes’ civil rights advocacy, a decades-old phenomenon, rose to international attention in the 1960s. Olympic track stars Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Wyomia Tyus, NBA champions Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, tennis aces Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King, and boxing great Muhammad Ali are among those known for their protests. Today they’re considered trailblazers but at the time they suffered consequences: Smith and Carlos lost their sponsorships and livelihoods, Ali was denied his boxing licence for several years, while Ashe was stripped of the captaincy of the US Davis Cup team. Athletes who spoke out continued to be shunned or overlooked. Players in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), proactive advocates since the league’s 1996 founding, didn’t gain greater attention for their efforts until July 2016 when the Minnesota Lynx protested over the police shooting of a Black man in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

That September, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the US national anthem to call attention to police brutality against Black people. The gesture was highly criticized, only 28% of Americans supported the gesture, he faded from his sponsors’ advertising campaigns, and remains unsigned by an NFL team, even though many including Tom Brady acknowledge Kaepernick remains highly qualified to play in the league. American soccer star Megan Rapinoe also took a knee to protest about injustice and inequality, the first white professional American athlete to do so, but was thwarted by the US Soccer Federation and endured deafening public pushback.

Things began to change in 2018. That September, Nike featured Kaepernick in its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, proclaiming: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” His and Rapinoe’s efforts, and those of other sportspeople, were amplified by the simmering activism of WNBA and NBA players, including LeBron James.

But it wasn’t until George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020 that this new brew of civic engagement was unleashed. Athletes in the United States, Americans as well as international players resident in-country, protested in the streets in support of Black Lives Matter and against police injustice. Their efforts ricocheted around the world, inspiring athletes across the continents. As a result, individuals and teams increasingly lend their voices to a variety of causes, and this is due, in part, to sports diplomacy.

Sports diplomacy is the communication, representation, and negotiation that occurs in and around the arena, as University of London’s Dr J Simon Rofe, a sports diplomacy expert, argues. It’s a tool traditionally associated with government representatives, hosting a sporting mega-event or national teams. But its informal variety, the cultural, technical, or knowledge exchange that occurs organically people-to-people daily in a globalizing, Internet-connected, social media-savvy sports world, is transmitting ideas and ideals from one sports culture to another. That’s why sports diplomacy plays an important role in this era of activism. International athletes learn about different means or modes of protests and activism by living and playing overseas, by becoming friends with each other online, or by following the public stances of their foreign counterparts through social media. But what works within one country doesn’t always translate to another, thus it looks different from nation to nation.

In Britain, the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford redefined how athletes could use their platform to change government policy. Inspired by the current wave of activism, his crusade to combat childhood hunger resulted in a reinstatement of free meals to in-need school children during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The 23-year-old isn’t new to advocacy, but last year his efforts kicked into overdrive, helping more than 1.3 million children and raising more than $27 million for free meals, gaining recognition from the BBC, FIFA, and the Queen.

Sponsors took note. Rashford, who signed a five-year £2 million deal with Nike in 2016, is more prominent in the company’s campaigns, including its December “You Can’t Stop Us” spot alongside the tennis champion Naomi Osaka. McDonald’s joined Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Task Force and donated a million free meals for in-need UK children. In addition, the fashion group Burberry now features the striker in its advertisements while partnering on initiatives benefiting young people in need. Osaka, inspired by LeBron James, cracked open conversations about race and identity in Japan while sending shockwaves through its advertising culture. Last spring, she marched in support of BLM in Minneapolis and continued to speak out against racial injustice. Her activism helped fuel anti-racism protests in Tokyo and a more honest debate on race in Japan, which traditionally has not embraced mixed-race citizens like Osaka, who has Japanese-Haitian parents. In August, she participated in a wildcat sports labor strike after Wisconsin police shot Jacob Blake, then won the US Open while wearing face masks supporting victims of police injustice, including Breonna Taylor.

Osaka’s activism was not without criticism on social media and by some in Japan. Several of her Japanese sponsors were allegedly uncomfortable with her advocacy, reflecting an advertising culture that prizes neutrality as well as an absence of a sports activism heritage. Still, Osaka’s stances were a boon to business; the highest paid female athlete in the world signed lucrative endorsement deals in January 2021 with Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer, and Workday, which all saluted her on- and off-court efforts.

It’s not just Osaka who reaps the new rewards of her activist stance. Rapinoe also enjoys increased sponsorship support five years after she started her activism in a far less welcoming environment. Today the face of US Soccer enjoys endorsement deals with Nike, Visa, Budweiser and BodyArmor, among others. She also has speaking opportunities, and a lucrative book deal for her new memoir, One Life. All of this last year amounted to an estimated net worth of $4.2 million. Rapinoe has 2.2 million Instagram followers and graced GQ’s February cover with her fiancée, WNBA champion Sue Bird.

Despite these examples, athlete activists still pay a high price in certain countries. For example, many sportspeople in Belarus joined prodemocracy protests following allegations of rigged voting in the 9 August elections. After authorities cracked down on protesters, more than 2,000 signed their names to “The Open Letter,” which condemned and demanded an end to the regime’s violence and human rights violations.

Activists among sports highest earners chart

Belarussian authorities have since carried out a punishing campaign of retribution. More than 100 sports activists were detained, fined, and/or prosecuted, including Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka, a two-season WNBA veteran. In addition, 85 others lost their jobs, were excluded from the national team or barred from training or studying opportunities, including 26 active athletes, according to the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation. To date, the organization has raised $144,500 to support those who paid a price for their activism. Belarussian athletes’ efforts are slowly yielding returns. In December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) moved against current Belarus National Olympic Committee Executive Board members. 

In January, Belarus was stripped of co-hosting the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) world championships after pressure from event sponsors Skoda, nivea Men, and Piqui Moli, over the regime’s repression of athletes. The International World pentathlon Union also relieved Belarus of hosting its world championships. However, it has come at a high cost to Belarussian athletes.

This exchange of ideas and cultural attitudes through sports diplomacy spills over and the entertainment sector must come to terms with the new business of athlete activism. Multi-billion-dollar marketing and sponsorship deals for global sports stars who are also activists will drive the industry, as Nielsen’s recent report on the Changing Value of Sponsorship affirms. Even countries without a sports advocacy heritage are touched by the globalizing impacts of sports voices and the multinational corporation which increasingly stand behind them, such as in Japan. This global movement is shaking up socio-cultural norms, impacting enterprise along the way, and no one can remain sitting quietly on the fence.

Leaders who stand up and speak out in support of civil and human rights know that it’s a long-term investment. To meet the times, forward-thinking executives can tap into the sports diplomacy framework. It can be about athlete, vent or organization sponsorship or speaking out in support of their advocacy. But it can also be about much more. Operators within the global sports industry can also serve as informal diplomats. They can facilitate conversations among colleagues, clients, consumers or counterparts internationally, using their unique perches to open up dialogues that exchange views and work towards impactful change. People may be quick to dismiss the power of using one’s platform to communicate, represent and negotiate about values and cultures in and around sports, but as Rashford, Osaka, and Belarussian athletes illustrate, it can be highly influential.

This engagement, like that of athletes, must be authentic and intentional; but it’s a good opportunity to smartly reinforce the ideas and ideals that drive brand principles from the inside-out. Such convictions have become important for consumers, who increasingly relate to and support brands and individuals that share their values.

It’s time to step up. Athletes have been on the front lines for too long. kijIt’s now up to business leaders to play a role, and the sports diplomacy framework can be an authentic way to do so.


Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsey Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian and author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France 1958-2010. She is a lecturer at New York University and a Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London.


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