A generation of athletes is leveraging its star power and building its own platforms to call for change.

In June 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a U-turn on his government’s refusal to provide free school meal vouchers for poor children over the summer holidays. The climbdown was not the result of any pressure from opposition parties but in response to a social media campaign led by Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford. The 22-year-old has subsequently launched his Child Food Poverty Taskforce backed by major brands and petitioned the government on a series of measures to tackle food poverty in Britain.

Rashford is just one of a crop of athletes exploiting their profile and platform to speak out across multiple social and political issues. WT Intelligence spoke with Matt Rogan, co-founder of sports consultancy Two Circles, and non-exec director of several businesses in professional and performance sports who has noted the rise of “athletes becoming media platforms in their own right and [..] a meaningful force for good” during the pandemic. Rogan points in particular to Rashford’s savvy in driving his campaign via social and digital channels as key to its success.

Along with social media, athletes are leveraging pre and post-competition photo opportunities to ensure their message gets maximum attention.

Naomi Osaka at the US Open, courtesy of Instagram

In her successful campaign at the US Open in September, US-Japanese player Naomi Osaka showed her support for the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing a series of face masks that bore the names of black people who have died at the hands of police or vigilantes, including Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and George Floyd. Asked by a journalist what her intended message was, Osaka replied, “Well, what was the message that you got, was more the question. I feel like the point was to make people start talking.”

Lewis Hamilton, courtesy of Twitter

Six-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton has been a high-profile voice for the Black Lives Matter movement this season, taking the knee before races and raising his fist in a ‘black power’ salute. At the Tuscan Grand Prix, he attracted controversy for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor’ but doubled down on his commitment, posting on Instagram: “Want you to know I won’t stop using this platform to shed light on what I believe is right.” Hamilton, the only black driver in Formula One, also established The Hamilton Commission, a research partnership that aims to tackle the issue of inequality in motor sport.

Top: NBA players kneeling in support in Black Lives Matter. Bottom: Lebron James for Nike.

Athletes have long played a role in social change of course but the sheer number of sportsmen and women seeking to make their voices heard this year is striking.  What also feels new, is the sense of inter- and intra-sport solidarity. Summer fixtures across the world in NBA basketball, NFL, soccer, cricket, Formula 1 and NASCAR have seen many participants take a knee in support of BLM.  And in August, walkouts by NBA players in protest at police treatment of black people were matched by unprecedented strikes by players in WNBA, tennis and soccer too.

Wunderman Thompson Intelligence spoke to Jerusha Conner, Professor of Education at the University of Villanova and a scholar on youth activism. Conner traces this latest wave of activism back to action by American football players at the University of Missouri in 2015, who refused to play or practice until the demands of a group of black student activists were met.

Colin Kaepernick for Nike

“That was an incredibly powerful example of the power of athletes when they act collectively to throw a wrench in the gears of profit,” explains Conner, “I think that story has been percolating in the minds of people in the sports world […] because it taught the world about the power these athletes hold when they act as a united front.”

Conner describes this trend as, “the flipside to cancel culture,” in that “what we see the athletes doing is taking their existing platforms and exercising and expanding them to address social wrongs, to force conversations about how we can right these societal ills.”

In many ways, the rise of athlete activism reflects a broader trend towards a wider social acceptance of protest. “Society and culture are evolving,” says Conner, “to not just accept but actually support and embrace activism.”

For more on the future of sports, keep an eye out for our upcoming report.

Main image of She Breaks Barriers by Adidas