The year 2020 continues to stun, though for all the wrong reasons. The latest development, which has disturbed everyone, is horrific the coldblooded murder in the US of African-American George Floyd under the arrogance-pumped, clenched-elbow lock of white supremacy.
Globally, people reacted and came forward to support the victim, to challenge the system and to record their hatred against deep-rooted racism in societies around the world and also motivated others to join them in their pursuit of equality.
Choosing a side in such scenarios of stark moral tumult often takes on graver significance than in normal times.
It was, thus, understandable that Darren Sammy, who twice led the West Indies to World T20 victories, spoke up. Narrating his own ordeal facing racism and that of `his kind`, he urged the International Cricket Council (ICC), along with other international cricket boards, to choose sides.
In his latest tweets, he emotionally questioned the stance of the ICC and the other boards. He suggested that they clearly come out in support of the `Black Lives Matter` movement and dismiss racism and white supremacy. Sammy`s tweets suggested that if the cricket world remains silent during such traumatic times, its silence would be taken to be in support of injustice.
The incident also triggered Chris Gayle to document his disapproval of it. However, such acts of cruelty, followed by public uproar and prominent sportspersons making their loyalties known, is not an isolated occurrence. Indeed,just a few years back, in 2014, the late Kobe Bryant and other iconic basketball players, including LeBron James, were photographed donning `I Can`t Breathe` T-shirts after almost an almost identical incident had claimed the life of another black person, Eric Garner, in almost the same manner and circumstances. He, too, had suffocated to death under a police chokehold, gasping for his life, repeating the same line which fell on the insensitive ears of the policemen pinning him down.
Floyd`s incident revived memories of the Garner episode and made people realise that, maybe, nothing has changed. Even in a lost cause, sometimes it becomes imperative and very critical to choose a side.
Other than the two Caribbean men, many other sportspersons have also registered their frustration and disappointments via symbolic gestures on the field. In the recent past, the quarterback for the American football team the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick had caused a political storm when he knelt on one leg during the national anthem, to register his protest against racial violence and discrimination in the US, including local police brutality and suppression of people of colour.
Kaepernick`s popular kneeling gesture was echoed by the rugby teams of Liverpool and New Castle United who repeated the gesture, this time to protest the killing of George Floyd. In fact, the reaction to injustice has been so widespread that, marking a new precedent, even FIFA asked its member countries to exercise`common sense` while responding to symbolic protests, contrary totheir very strict policies against players promoting any political, religious or personal stance in their playing kits while on the field.
In the initial days after the Floyd incident, some players in the German Bundesliga were found wearing bands and T-shirts with the message `Justice for George Floyd`. FIFA, however, asked their member countries to understand these emotions and to refrain from booking these players. This was followed by more teams from Bundesliga showcasing one-knee gestures before the start of their matches.
Lewis Hamilton, six times Formula One world champion, also took to social media to register his support for the `Black Lives Matter` movement.
Boxing legend Mike Tyson posted a snap where he knelt to show his solidarity. While Michael Jordan, who is notorious for his silence over social issues, also tweeted to show the pain and agony he felt. Footballer Mario Balotelli posted his photograph on one knee and a raised right fist pointing skywards to register his dismay over Floyd`s killing. Kevin-Prince Boateng, the former Portsmouth and Barcelona midfielder, asked his fellow black footballers to celebrate Floyd`s birthday every year to show solidarity and, if agreed upon, not to participate in any games on Floyd`s death anniversary.
It is of extreme importance that great sportsmen take morally and ethically correct stands and use their own brand equity to guide their fan following towards the ethical side. Alan Kurdi`s case, in this regard, is still fresh in our memories. The red T-shirt clad, three-year-old Syrian toddler washed up by the tides on the shores of Turkey in 2015, became symbolic of the plight of Syrian refugees.
His picture haunted people for a long time. Many sportsmen, teams and associations stepped in to share the burden of the plight of the refugees.
Novak Djokovie visited a Unicef-supported centre in Serbia to meet the refugees. Later, he famously remarked, `At the end of the day, we all have to be humans and feel for one another, which defines the entire point of this activity.
Real Madrid`s Christiano Ronaldo vowed to spend time with Syrian refugee children, playing with them, which was captured in many memorable photographs. Many football leagues, teams and associations came up with different symbolic gestures, either in the form of monetary donations or activities that brought the plight of Syrian refugees to the limelight, such as by making mascots or joining hands with relevant NGOs, clubs, etc. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Celtic, the Swiss Football League, Roma and Los Angeles Galaxy were among the few that contributed generously for the cause.
Of course, one of the most famous incidents of sportspersons taking a political stand about racism was when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-glovedfists during the playing of the US anthem at the awarding ceremony of the 200m event at the 1968 Olympics. The two had won gold and bronze at the event. White Australian Peter Norman, who had won silver, also supported their message of racial equality by donning a human rights badge on the podium. All three faced severe criticism from conservatives in their home countries and faced repercussions for their acts, including being thrown out of the Olympics in the case of Smith and Carlos, and not being selected for the Olympics again in the case of Norman. However, eventually all were exonerated, apologised to and praised by their governments for their heroism.
Tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean also were very vocal about discrimination, be it in the form of racism or prejudice against LGBT persons. US soccer star Megan Rapinoe too has become an icon for her vocal stands against discrimination and particularly the policies of US President Donald Trump.
Although there are many such incidents where sportsmen used gestures, wore special clothing, gave walk-overs to opponents or even walked out of games to register their protest against wars, injustice or cruelty, there is one incident that always stands out and is somewhat considered to be the gold standard of protests for the right cause.
It is when the late, former world heavyweight champion and Olympic Gold medalist boxer Muhammad Ali refused to get enlisted in the US Army fighting in the Vietnam War in 1967.
Ali, like many others in the US, was picked to be drafted into the US army at the peak of his boxing career, in the war that the USA was by then clearly losing. Ali categorically refused on humanitarian grounds. He was sentenced for five years imprisonment (though he remained free on appeal), his boxing license was revoked and he could no longer `float like a butterfly and sting like a bee` in the ring. All his titles were also stripped off but he remained steadfast and unwilling to sacrifice his principles and conscience on the matter.
The conviction against Ali was overturned in 1971. Although he lost four years of his prime boxing years, he achieved a new respect and grew even bigger than the sport just because of his stance. Ironically, over the years, Ali became an icon of peace and goodwill. He is also famously quoted as saying, `There are only two kinds of men, those who compromise and those who take a stand!
The writer tweets @Ali_Shahid82