The feet planted firmly on the ground, head held high in confidence, the outstretched arms welcoming the adoration of the crowd; it’s the unadulterated, unapologetic pride and joy that makes the image iconic. A lilac-haired, lesbian sportswoman in complete comfort with who she is and unashamed of the unparalleled skill and ability she possesses. Prior to this moment, Megan Rapinoe was already renowned for her confident and eloquent representation of women in sport and the participation of the LBGTQI community. While the women’s US team blazed their way through the football World Cup, they were also progressing their legal challenge against their association for pay equity with the far less successful men’s team. Rapinoe had also been active in her wider advocacy for equal rights, for women and LGBTQI, as well as helping to raise awareness of racial inequality in the US, joining Colin Kaepernick in kneeling for the national anthem. But it was the viral sharing of an earlier video in which she asserted that she wouldn’t “be going to the fucking White House” if the team won this year’s World Cup that thrust her onto the radar of a wider sector of society, including the White House’s resident himself. Trump grumpily Tweeted at her, while, undistracted and unrepentant, she went out and scored two goals to take her team into the World Cup semi-final, giving the world her epochal celebration and ultimately helping to bring the trophy back to US soil. While the team’s achievements were widely celebrated, some social commentators, particularly those in the Trump orbit, branded Rapinoe as “arrogant” and admonished her, suggesting she stick to sport and to stay out of politics. And of course, as she predicted, she didn’t go to the White House; Trump never extended the invitation he had said he would.
For many years now, professional sports have presented opportunities for people to reach social and economic positions that would generally be unavailable to them in other fields. Sports owners and managers have been happy to fill their teams with people of colour and other minorities, and to reap the rewards they bring. Generally, this all ticks along unquestioned until occasionally someone pokes their head above the parapet, attracting the ire of pundits, commentators and even politicians. Colin Kaepernick’s protests highlighting police brutality towards black civilians led to him not being selected for the NFL and saw him branded ‘unpatriotic’. Trump stirred up division, stating that, “if a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect … our Great American Flag (or Country)”, and asking his baying crowds, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!” This is a common racist trope; expecting black people to remain quiet and uncritical while showing gratitude for the opportunities they have been given. Many sports fans are comfortable watching people of colour or women put their bodies on the line for the success of the team, but less so in listening to what they may have to say about their own life experiences. There is a fear of the expression of emotions, particularly if it is dissent or anger. People were happy for Serena Williams to blast her way through tournament after tournament, but were less supportive when she started to question female players’ pay, and especially when she challenged an umpire’s decision during a match and displayed anger.
In Australia, the case of Aboriginal Australian Football player Adam Goodes has returned to the public eye, with the broadcasting of a new documentary, “The Final Quarter”. The film details the final 3 years of his AFL career, and the racist commentary and booing that eventually contributed to his decision to retire from the game. Goodes was an award-winning player whose career had spanned over 10 years, and was also active in his advocacy for Indigenous People’s rights and youth development. During a match in 2013, he called out a spectator on the sidelines for calling him an “ape”, and the 13-year old girl was swiftly removed from the stadium. In spite of Goodes public statements about the girl that, “It’s not her fault, please don’t go after her”, several high-profile columnists and commentators condemned Goodes’ actions. Their message was amplified by right wing media outlets and social media, and stadium crowds began booing Goodes. In 2014, Goodes was presented with the Australian of the Year award but the same media figures continued to vilify him. During Indigenous Week in the 2015 AFL, in which Aboriginal culture was celebrated and Goodes’ team wore shirts designed by his mother, Goodes celebrated a goal with a war dance. The celebration had been created by The Flying Boomerangs, a youth football development programme for Indigenous teenagers, to celebrate Aboriginal culture. They had shown it to Goodes in 2011 and he performed it in recognition of them. As any sports fan would know, teams from across the Pacific celebrate sporting achievements and recognise their Indigenous cultures in a similar way, most famously with New Zealand teams performing the Maori Haka, but this doesn’t happen with Australian teams. So the same critics used this as another opportunity to whip up ire against Goodes, accusing him of being confrontational and threatening towards opposition fans. Their comments demonstrated that, while a superficial recognition of Aboriginal culture in sporting events was acceptable to them, a vibrant expression of cultural pride and calls for genuine recognition was a step too far and needed to be smothered. Afterwards, the continual booing of Goodes intensified and he eventually took indefinite leave from his team. In spite of a campaign of support, organised by his fans, he retired from the sport at the end of the 2015 season, effectively driven out by the ceaseless harassment.
This use of harassment to make environments prohibitively unpleasant for certain members of society is not confined to sport and the sporting media. Online, Gamergate and the Ghostbusters backlash exposed the ability of a handful of men to stir up discontent and encourage co-ordinated attacks on female actors and gamers in order to try and drive them out of realms which the men feel belong exclusively to them. Often, when sporting or entertainment figures express opinions on social or political issues, they are harangued and told to ‘stay in their lane’, very often by Twitter users with no observable specialist knowledge or expertise themselves. So while black, Indigenous, female and lesbian sports players are tolerated so long as they focus on the sport, any hint of attaining a position of social influence or unapologetic displays of pride are slapped down. But they are essential in highlighting the inequities of society to a wider audience, and until there is a diversity of representation in commentary, punditry and reporting, and in the media which disseminates them, we will continue to turn to the proud and powerful voices of the Rapinoes, Kaepernicks, Williams and Goodes, who are willing to face the slings and arrows in order to represent us all.
25th July 2019