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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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The double standards of sport

Published by The i paper (18th January, 2021)

Maro Itoje went to Harrow, one of Britain’s most expensive private schools, before becoming a rugby superstar. But now he wants to use his fame as a sporting idol and platform on social media to provide a voice for children from poor backgrounds. His focus is the families trapped on wrong side of the digital divide, their sons and daughters locked out of online lessons amid school shutdowns. “The absolute priority right now is guaranteeing children have devices to learn with,” he told The Sunday Times. “When they go back to school, we need a review on access to laptops in a digitally driven world.”

He is right: this is an important issue. It is good to see another sporting hero step up to the political plate, using his massive influence to fight for social justice. Itoje, whose parents are Nigerian, admits he is inspired by Marcus Rashford; the two men share the same agency, founded by hip-hop billionaire Jay-Z. The Manchester United forward has won his leadership role as an almost unchallengeable figure in an astonishingly short time. He is calm and sure-footed when campaigning, his activism on childhood hunger informed by his own compelling life story.

Last week the Prime Minister claimed Rashford was doing a better job than his Labour opponent Keir Starmer at holding the Government to account. The parliamentary jibe was all the sharper for its painful truth. Rashford himself is following in the footsteps of the England star Raheem Sterling, who fought back against racism and stereotyping with great courage. “There’s only so much people can take – especially black people,” Sterling told an interviewer. “It’s been going on for hundreds of years and people are tired and people are ready for change. This is something that needs more than just talking. We need to actually implement change.”

No doubt more players will follow their lead. This is something to be welcomed: Rashford and Sterling made their names with their feet, but are following their hearts while using their heads. Footballers may be absurdly overpaid, but most are decent human beings for all the lurid headlines when one behaves foolishly; I am amazed more do not spin out of control, given the adulation and money they receive from such a young age. Sports stars add to the national debate since many grow up in very different circumstances to the political, media and business elites that dominate most conversations.

As an Everton fan, I have enjoyed watching Neville Southall’s transformation from unflappable goalkeeper to unlikely social media star fighting for transgender and disabled rights. I remember discussing politics with one international at the club, a thoughtful character firmly on the left, who told me he had written to the Football Association suggesting a £20 cap on ticket prices to stop working-class families being forced from the game. He looked aghast after a former team-mate, raised in the north-west, joined us and admitted that he had just voted Tory; when asked why, this affable individual said he did not like Jeremy Corbyn’s crumpled suits. It was an amusing moment, a reminder of normal people in abnormal positions.

Campaigns on the digital divide, on food poverty, even on the more challenging terrain of media racism, are noble yet essentially populist. Clubs now take the knee before games. But what happens when a star steps from the safety zone to tackle abusive forces that fund their own sport?

The answer is seen as Mesut Ozil slinks away from Arsenal, one of their finest recent performers who failed even to make the squad this season despite being the club’s highest-paid player. He is a complex character whose ostracisation remains opaque, yet I have no doubt his falling out dates back to December 2019 when he dared confront a Communist dictatorship. Özil fired off posts to his huge number of social media followers – who include millions of fans in China – about Beijing’s barbarism towards the Uighurs.

The player, who is from Germany with Turkish heritage, was supporting a largely Muslim Turkic minority being crushed by a ruthless regime. He was wiped instantly from the internet in China, while broadcasters in the country dumped Arsenal’s next game. The club moved fast to distance itself, pathetically claiming not to be involved in politics, then removed its rebellious playmaker from promotional materials for Chinese New Year. He was also dumped a few months later from a huge deal with Adidas.

It is worth noting that Arsenal is sponsored by another vile dictatorship with a plea to visit Rwanda emblazoned on the sleeves of the club’s shirts after President Paul Kagame spent £30m to show his support. The wedge between club management and their star player widened with a row over pay cuts and questions over his attitude. And Özil’s stance as a human rights fighter is undermined by his friendship with Turkey’s nasty president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yet just as when the Houston basketball team’s manager tweeted support for Hong Kong’s protests, sparking big losses for the sport from sponsorship and telecast deals, the consequences of criticising China were made clear.

It is admirable to see these stars start to challenge wrongs in society and stand up for citizens less fortunate than they are. Yet there is a degree of cant, a hint of hypocrisy, when their own sports are riddled with dirty cash, their clubs are owned by billionaire oligarchs linked to hideous regimes, their shirts are sponsored by gambling companies destroying lives and their fortunes are derived from deals in dark places that demand you stay silent on horrific human rights abuses. Sport is a powerful force in society, so has long been entwined with politics. But Özil proves there are limits on the activism that is permitted. You can criticise the digital divide or food poverty in Britain, but not the genocide and torture in China.

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