Why this generation of athlete activism is different

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On 20th April 2021, sport responded with the rest of the world to news from Minneapolis, in the US state of Minnesota.

That was the night police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on three charges – second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter – after he killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes during an arrest last June. The death of another unarmed Black man at the hands of law enforcement on American streets had triggered anguished global protests and introspection; the jury’s verdict this time brought vindication, optimism, and relief.

This was reflected in statements from elite athletes and, just as pertinently, from leagues and sports brands who had been shocked out of their reticence by the strength of feeling around the Floyd case, and pressure from their own stars.

The changing attitude toward athletes

Just as Floyd’s death was the spur for more purposeful conversations about structural racism and injustice around the world, it also marked a tipping point in attitudes towards interventions by athletes on social issues.

Data from the US suggests that fan attitudes towards athlete protests have changed sharply in just a few years. According to Nielsen, these swung firmly behind sportspeople leading Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. A survey in July found that 69 per cent of American sports fans supported the BLM cause – over-indexing the general population. 72 per cent believed athletes provided a ‘unique view’ and represented an ‘important influence’, while 59 per cent expected athletes to ‘personally help progress the BLM movement’.

Moreover, 70 per cent indicated they thought teams and leagues should support athlete protests. 70 per cent believed teams and leagues should create marketing campaigns to promote diversity. 77 per cent said brands were more powerful when they partnered with sports organisations to foster social change, and 64 per cent had an increased interest in brands that joined the fight against racial inequality.

This contrasted with the more split reaction to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he led National Football League (NFL) players in taking the knee during the US national anthem in 2016. Kaepernick’s gesture now looks to have cost him his playing career, but his discipline in pursuing that agenda would eventually deliver real progress. Support for his actions rose and his campaign received a major boost in September 2018 when Nike made him the face of a 30th anniversary celebration of its ‘Just Do It’ campaign.

Factors behind the shift

There are several factors behind a fundamental shift in the nature of athlete activism. Social and digital media have given top athletes a much bigger personal platform, not just extending their reach but also their capacity to hone in on issues that matter to them. Increasingly, the overwhelming bulk of athletes have grown up with those platforms and understand them intimately. The dynamics of social media, meanwhile, elevate the voice of prominent individuals above those of brands.

At the same time, a generational shift is happening around the values of companies in the public space. According to 2019 research by Deloitte, a majority of people in Gen Z – those currently aged between around 13 and 24 – expect the organisations they will work for to share broadly similar cultural values to them. They are also likelier to make purchasing decisions based on a company’s social actions. These are qualities that Gen Z shares with millennials, the oldest of whom are now approaching their 40th birthday.

In April, in ending her long-term partnership with Nike and signing a long-term endorsement with the Gap-owned Athleta brand, 24-year-old gymnastics icon Simone Biles cited the importance of those values. “[Athleta] are committed to diversity and inclusion, which was really important for me to see in a partner,” she said.

Nike’s own credibility when it comes to supporting female athletes was rocked in 2019 when it was revealed it had been cutting fees to pregnant women and new mothers taking a break from competition. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who revealed she was one of the athletes involved, subsequently moved to Athleta. Nike subsequently reviewed its working practices.

The new wave of athlete activism

With such a desirable purchasing group expressing those opinions, brands and organisations are now making decisions to support social and political causes in the knowledge that they will balance out commercially. Delta and Coca-Cola were among the corporations to speak out against a restrictive new set of voting laws in the US state of Georgia earlier in 2021, knowing that consumers would support them for it. Major League Baseball made a similar judgment when it moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Colorado in protest at the regulations, which are likely to inhibit ballot access to poorer and minority voters.

Across the Atlantic, the power of athletes is being demonstrated in different ways. Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford has already shown what can be achieved through authentic, smartly directed activism. The soccer star drew on his own childhood experience, and the public relations expertise of his agency, Roc Nation Sports, in campaigning with the FareShare charity to extend free school meals during pandemic-related closures.

More recently, athletes have been showing what can happen when their voices are withdrawn. Players’ unions in sports including soccer, cricket and rugby union spearheaded a boycott of social media platforms from 30th April to 4th May in protest at the failure of the companies running them to combat racist and sexist abuse. Crucially, they were backed by leagues and governing bodies like the Premier League and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), as well as many leading media organisations, all of whom were aware not just of the duty of care they owed to those stars but the commercial debt they bear in the digital age.

The acceptance of all forms of athlete protest is by no means universal. In April, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Athletes’ Commission recommended that athletes be discouraged from overt political demonstrations – including taking a knee – during the Tokyo 2020 Games later this year. This is in line with the IOC’s Rule 50, though the commission did recommend other avenues be created for political expression.

Nonetheless, this new wave of athlete activism is not going away and this time, there are commercial structures, media trends and public expectations in place to sustain it.