A young man, presumably in his early twenties, walks around the warehouse of a non-profit organisation in Manchester, coordinating the NGO’s efforts to battle food waste and to provide of meals to the destitute.
He is cautious, wearing a face shield to protect himself against the lethally contagious novel coronavirus. He oversees the preparations to tackle the increasing workload in the coming week due to the October half-terms (a one-week holiday in the middle of the school term in England) and the British government’s refusal to extend free school meals to the holidays.
At this point, you might be wondering: why is this piece in the sports section? Well, a week later, the same man came on as a substitute in the UEFA Champions League and scored a hat-trick, coincidentally becoming the second player to score three goals off the bench for his club, after his current manager.
Marcus Rashford has had a habit of being in the news due to his exploits on the pitch. He rose through the ranks in his boyhood club Manchester United, breaking into the first team in 2016 when he was just 18. He scored on his club debut, on his Premier League debut, on his EFL Cup debut, his Champions League debut and England debut.
Despite being regarded as part of the next generation of superstars ever since his first season, Rashford has always remained close to his roots. The Wythenshawe-born continued school during his breakthrough season and has since maintained a strong connection with the schools in the area, often visiting children to distribute gifts and talk with them. He even played football in the streets during his early days, before the first team coach banned him from doing so.
In 2019, Rashford set up a campaign to provide essentials to homeless people within Manchester during the Christmas festive season. He volunteered himself for most of the on-ground work, visiting shelters with his mother to hand out the supplies. He also arranged for some items to be shipped to a children’s home in his grandmother’s native country of St. Kitts and Nevis.
In an age where sportspeople are increasingly criticised for their excessive wages, reckless lifestyles and for losing touch with their fans and the general public, there’s someone like Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, who carries on a glorious tradition of using his celebrity to help others
When the world went into lockdown in March 2020 to combat the spread of Covid-19, Rashford decided to take the case of children from poor backgrounds into his own hands.
According to a rough estimate, around 1.5million children in England rely on school meals for daily nutrition. When schools closed, so did their food source, and that’s where Rashford stepped in. From humble beginnings, Rashford himself relied on free school meals growing up, so he knew the implications of the non-availability of school meals.
Rashford teamed up with the charity organisation FareShare to deliver meals to children within the Greater Manchester area. Bolstered by donations, they soon raised more than £20million and increased their focus to the entire country, reaching more than four million children. Owing to the success of this initiative, Rashford formulated a task force to fight against child food poverty, constituted of various companies, restaurants, and charities.
In June, Rashford called on the British government to provide free meals to children during the summer vacations. After a few days of sustained pressure, the government reversed its original decision to not facilitate children on the lunch quota outside of the school term.
His efforts to feed children from low-income families earned him an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), the third highest honour in the UK, not counting knighthood. Rashford dedicated the award to his mother, a single parent who has been an inspiration to him throughout his life. He also became the youngest person ever to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester.
This cascade of honours and public admiration did not detract Rashford from his goal. In October, he submitted a petition to the government to extend free school meals to the upcoming half-terms. The petition crossed the 100,000 signatures threshold to be considered in parliament within 10 hours, but was voted down by the ruling Conservative Party.
He showed immense maturity by asking people not to attack ministers and officials personally in the wake of the decision. As the petition drew closer to the one million signatures mark, Rashford called upon local businesses to step up and provide meals to school children. More than a thousand cafes, restaurants, councils and charities registered in response to his call, including the mayor of Greater Manchester, with Rashford endorsing most of them by retweeting their announcements.
In the beginning of November, after a victory against Everton (don’t worry, he’s still doing his day job), Rashford received a phone call from the Prime Minister of England, Boris Johnson, briefing him about the government’s plans to continue the provision of free school meals in the winter holidays as well as the holidays in 2021, while it works on a permanent solution. Rashford welcomed the second U-turn by the government, reiterating that, while not all his demands have been met, this will be instrumental in ensuring no child goes to bed hungry.
In an age where sportspeople are increasingly criticised for their excessive wages, reckless lifestyles and losing touch with their fans and the general public, this campaign by one of the brightest prospects in football is a welcome sign.
It shows how it’s not only sports that act as a unifying force for the masses; in some cases, it can be a particular sportsperson who does that, and to a much greater extent, too. Dr Marcus Rashford, MBE deserves all the admiration and recognition he gets.
OTHER NOTABLE MENTIONS
While Rashford has had the most profound effect on the community any sportsperson has managed in recent times, he is not the only athlete to make a difference.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, managed something very similar in the early 1990s, when he led the country to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup and then followed it up with the donation drive for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital. The hospital was inaugurated in 1994, providing free treatment to cancer patients who could not afford it. Since then, Imran Khan has overseen the setting up of the Namal University in his native Mianwali, a research centre in the form of the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital Lahore and another cancer hospital in Peshawar.
Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to be drafted in a Major Baseball League team in 1947, paving the way for more homogenous representation of talent in the US. He was ridiculed multiple times in public, even spat at, but he persevered, and his batting average of 0.311 and World Series Championship victory proved that skin colour is never a gauge of ability.
Mohammad Ali was not only a boxing champion but also a civil rights torchbearer. He continued to shed light on America’s racial problem, before refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War, a move in which he was supported by later basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He was ultimately named the Sportsperson of the 20th Century by multiple newspapers.
In the 1968 Olympics, the US 200m champion and world record holder Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos attended the medal ceremony barefoot and raised black-gloved fists to protest against the economic hardships and social injustices faced by the African-American community, the most notable in sports being Ali being stripped of his heavyweight title.
Recently, quarter-back Colin Kaepernick has received worldwide recognition for bringing light to racial inequality in the US again, by choosing to kneel during the national anthem. Rashford’s England teammate Raheem Sterling has campaigned against racism and has also announced plans of a foundation to help disadvantaged children.
Rashford’s Manchester United teammate Juan Mata, often referred to as ‘the nicest man in football’, initiated the Common Goal Campaign, which calls for players and managers to donate at least one per cent of their earnings. Some notable members of the Common Goal Campaign include Mats Hummels, Giorgio Chiellini and US women’s soccer superstars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both chair huge charities with worldwide presence. LeBron James runs an organisation to fund college students. Venus Williams led Billie Jean King’s battle for equality for women in the 21st century and became the first Wimbledon winner to be awarded the same prize money as the men’s winner. Sadio Mane financed the construction of a hospital and schools in his village in Senegal. Naomi Osaka donned facemasks bearing the names of victims of police brutality during the 2020 US Open as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. And Cristiano Ronaldo was declared the most charitable athlete by dosomething.org in 2015, atop a list that also included Shahid Afridi.
The writer tweets @tahagoheer
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 22nd, 2020