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Marcus Rashford and the playbook for athletic activism

On 15th June, Marcus Rashford, one of Europe’s hottest prospects in football, wrote an impassioned letter to all 650 British Members of Parliament asking them to reverse their decision to cancel the food voucher scheme that feeds 1.3 million school children over the summer holidays.

The free school meals program, a policy that originated back in 1906 as part of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act has become a pillar for British low income families.

“Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations” he wrote and “one quarter of these 1.3 million children have not been given any support since the school closures were ordered. Many of their parents have seen their jobs evaporate due to Covid-19” and “forced to play substitute teacher, hoping that their children are going to be focused enough to learn, with only a small percentage of their nutritional needs met during this period.”

Rashford draws parallels between his personal experiences and statistics: “Without education we’re encouraging this cycle of hardship to continue. To put this pandemic into perspective, from 2018–2019, nine out of 30 children in any given classroom were living in poverty in the UK.” He’s heard from “fathers struggling with depression, worried sick about how they are going to support their families having lost their jobs unexpectedly, headteachers who are personally covering the cost of food packages for their vulnerable families after the school debit card has been maxed out.”

He compares the hypothetical summer of UEFA EURO 20 tournament with his childhood visits to food banks and soup kitchens. He urges that this decision “is not about politics; this is about humanity.” And concludes emphatically: “This is England in 2020, and this is an issue that needs urgent assistance.”

Rashford posted the open letter on social media on the morning of 15th June, within a couple of hours, the hashtag #maketheUturn he created became the #1 trending topic on Twitter in the UK. He urged his followers to retweet and tag their local Member of Parliament to his message. Soon after, he started receiving support from major politicians like Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan and major British corporations. Before his training session, he made an appearance on BBC Breakfast, the most watched morning TV show in the UK, making an authentic appeal to members of the public to support the cause and penned an oped in the Newscorp owned Times, often seen as the favoured newspaper for MPs.

Initially the government’s response was mute, the Secretary of State for Work and Pension, Therese Coffey, responded to a thread in which Rashford highlighted struggling families that may not have access to hot water, electricity and food, with “Water cannot be disconnected though”. This was widely criticized as out of touch, not winning the Conservative government any favours.

However, when he returned from training, Rashford was greeted by phone calls by MPs including from the very top. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, sought his counsel and praised his contribution to the debate around poverty. The next day, the government announced a “Covid summer food fund” of £120 million to help children from low-income families during the summer break.

Rashford’s advocacy is a successful example of what a sports player can achieve by using their platform to advocate for an issue. Marcus Rashford’s activism draws on an effective playbook on how to drive change:

  • Choose a simple and clear objective with consistent messaging of what you are pushing for. The outcome Rashford wanted was fairly simple and achievable i.e. for the government to provide extra funding

Though there’s a significant risk for prominent people to speak out on issues, athletes in the past have been shunned and isolated for taking a stance. The NBA star, Charles Barkley, claimed that his outspokenness cost him $10M in endorsements. Famously when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics, they were expelled from the Games by the IOC president.

In the U.S Open 2018 final, Serena Williams, famously received a fine of $10,000 and penalized a game when she called the male umpire a thief. “He’s never took a game from a man because they said ‘thief’. For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal rights”. The next year, she narrated a Nike ad, named ‘Dream crazier’ celebrating female athletes breaking barriers.

Commentators often say “sports is beyond politics” and there’s long been an ideology of sport being apolitical, even enshrined in the Olympics and international competitions like the World Cup — it’s meant to galvanise not question. So being an activist athlete can be seen as at odds with others who believe that sports should all be about togetherness rather than dissent.

These consequences weren’t above the great Michael Jordan. In 1990, he refused to endorse a black challenger to his state’s senatorial position because he was worried about his Nike deal — “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Ironically, when Nike took a stance and elevated Colin Kaepernick with an endorsement deal in 2018, it was great for business.

Of course you have probably heard of Colin Kaepernick’s blackballing in the media. These issues are often about race and gender, rather than political affiliations. Apart from commercial concerns, athletes are also behest to the media. Kaepernick was often labelled as a divisive figure even in his team’s locker room. They questioned why millionaire athletes have things to complain about and whether they have truly been affected by these issues. Rashford’s England teammate, Raheem Sterling used an Instagram post to demonstrate the discrepancies of how publications report. Two youth team stars had bought a house for their mothers and the same media publication had printed very different headlines for effectively the same story:

“Young Manchester City footballer, 20, on £25,000 a week splashes out on mansion on market for £2.25 million despite having never started a Premier League match” and “Manchester City starlet Phil Foden buys new £2m home for his home”.

Same story, two very different headlines for the black and white players.

Ultimately like their day job, activism by athletes is a lot about managing risks. Rather than assessing whether they can make that play or shot, it’s about whether they can break bipartisan barriers, whether they can be a worthy voice for an issue and tell an authentic story.

There’s plenty to learn from these athletes. Let’s learn from the playbook that Rashford and many others have built and take calculated risks in advocating for justice in our social and professional environments.

“This is not about politics; this is about humanity. Just look at what we can do when we work together” — a Rashford quote plastered on a mural in his neighborhood in Manchester, UK.

Former Product Manager @Google. Worked in 3 different continents across lots of different product. Former Co-founder @Luna

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