Profit, Planet and Principles: Why the relationship between sport and politics needs rethinking.
“Fans don’t want politics brought into football” was the message from MP Lee Anderson in June of this year. It was in response to the ‘taking of the knee’, the anti-racist, metaphorical stand that has been taken by thousands of athletes around the world. It underlined a broader, long-standing feeling that sport in general should stay clear of off-field issues and principles. The high profile, diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in China underlines instantly the complexity of the relationship between sport and politics. While US diplomats may not be in attendance, US businesses that sponsor the Olympics certainly will be. Writing in The Guardian, Tim Adams reminds us that back in the 1980s the lines between principles and sport were already begging to blur. Tennis players, for example, had to decide whether the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa meant enough to them individually to refuse some of their biggest possible pay days. The English Cricket Board shared the same dilemma. As athletes and sporting events / teams continue to rise to astronomical levels of stardom, financial power, and fame, their influence and mere presence surrounding issues away from sport must also show growth. Millions of followers have given a platform to all stakeholders across varying sports that never had existed. Clubs, teams, and athletes have become institutions, brands, and celebrities. Referencing some differing examples, this piece looks to assess the role sport does and can play when it comes to setting standards in ways of life that transcend the sport itself. Indeed, if we as humans are intent on continually making positive societal changes, can sport afford to not get involved?
At the time of writing, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes team have just confirmed that they have terminated their sponsorship deal with Kingspan, a firm that made insulation material involved in the Grenfell Tower disaster. To some, it may seem bizarre that Mercedes got themselves in this position – the idea being that such an elite, global entity should have better understood the brand that was investing into their team. Indeed, levels of investment are so large now that much more public scrutiny is given to any commercial partnership. In an increasingly social media driven society, it’s fair to say that if the team won’t unearth Kingspan’s connection to Grenfell, someone else will. Hamilton himself pointed out following journalist questioning that he has nothing to do with the logos placed on his car. This is of course true, but critics (cynics) will be quick to point out that Hamilton himself has braved the disdain shown towards politics in sport, actively using his platform to forward messaging around equality, diversity, and inclusion. It communicates the importance of “brand image” and how far that term now spreads.
Perhaps then, there is an increasing responsibility for all rights holders to be more selective over the commercial partnerships they engage with. But money so often talks, which helps explain why there has been such an omnipresence of huge deals with betting companies across all sports with large followings. It is, however, virtually impossible to know where the line is between maximising revenue to ensure sporting success vs a consciousness around image and doing what is right. On a related point, as Adams writes on this subject, ‘How many season tickets have been returned to Newcastle’s St. James’ Park in the name of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi?” Rather evocatively put, the point stands that the idea that principles are never for sale in sport is far-fetched. Worth noting, any expectation placed on a passionate, hard-working Newcastle United fan to vigorously oppose their new ownership, seems blinkered. Indeed, understanding whether the bulk of the opposition to the Saudi ownership comes from a place of principle or financial envy helps convey why the lines are so blurry.
Elsewhere in football, Brentford FC have recently announced their commitment to financial sustainability by choosing not to replace their home kit, keeping the same attire for two seasons. Formerly commonplace, it is not since 2012-2014 that a Premier League team has kept their kit for more than one season. The answer why is, evidently, money. A brief look at the quantity of training kits and general merchandise that have been produced, and made available for sale, across all clubs since the financially crippling pandemic proves this. It is a pioneering move from a club that now has a huge platform to propagate messaging around sticking to principles. Revenue brought in by merchandise is not astronomical, it nevertheless represents a club that has a communicative relationship with its supporters, indirectly challenging rivals to justify the huge outlays fans are encouraged to make on an annual basis. Brentford’s Chief Executive Jon Varney made clear that “fans have told us that they would be in favour of the savings that a two-season shirt would provide.” While some fans of other clubs have already become vocal in encouraging their clubs to take similar action, it is worth noting that the financial hit that would be taken from more globally facing clubs is much greater.
There is an environmental backdrop to Brentford’s decision too. The fact that a shirt made from polyester – as most football shirts are – has more than double the carbon footprint of one made from cotton is why Varney claimed it “can only be good to reduce kit cycles”. Environmental sustainability has become more of a concern for everyone in society in the last decade and represents a strand of ‘politics’ that is too big to be excluded from sport. Following on from COP26 and in general the climate crisis, all industries have been indirectly challenged to find ways to do their bit. The BBC ran a story in November 2021 querying whether football clubs should be flying for domestic games. Unlike the Newcastle ownership saga, there need not be any interference of club loyalties on issues such as this. Clubs are financially better off if they charter fewer private planes. Sport is, in many ways, perfectly placed to be a leader in this field. As it has been pointed out, elite sporting teams and events have the financial power to make big strides. But perhaps more pertinently, the cross-generational, global, and unwavering support that these organisations have make them ideally placed to encourage ordinary people to think more deeply about environmental sustainability.
If aggravated when politicians get involved with sport, it might seem hypocritical to laud the reverse interventions. Marcus Rashford showed, however, that when the cause is good, platforms of a famous person, regardless of the industry they are in, can be literally life changing. Gary Neville is another example of a prominent figure outspoken on broader issues, which may perturb some. But his core involvement in politics is through his call for greater, fairer football regulation which seems, on the surface at least, to be a positive movement. What these and many other examples show, is that the idea that sport and politics can be kept separate when there is such an invested interest from millions of people is out-dated and needs rethinking. Sport excels in its escapism, allowing people all over the world to temporarily park their problems to be entertained. It stands to reason therefore that the relationship between principles and sport is complex. But as society evolves and the push for equality, openness, inclusion, and sustainability become more and more prevalent, the platform that these bodies and individuals hold is simply too great to turn a blind eye. Not forgetting Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ powerful, principled statement in 1968 for an issue that still needs addressing today, such acts should surely be encouraged. Whether it’s about being more selective when it comes to commercial partnerships, trying to be a pioneer in financial sustainability or forwarding messages around societal/environmental change, sport not only can play a role, it fundamentally has to.