“Our voices are louder when we stand together”: How 2020 ushered in a new era of athlete activism – News – Sponsorship, Politics & Governance, Women’s Sport, Personal Endorsement, SmartSeries, North America Global

Nneka Ogwumike arrived at Feld Entertainment Center on 26th August to find the Atlanta Dream and Washington Mystics already out on court ahead of their game that evening. Only they were not there to warm up.

Instead, members of both Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) franchises were locked in intense, meaningful discussion as they contemplated whether or not it was right to play. It wasn’t long before Ogwumike, president of the league’s players’ union, the WNBPA, could be seen addressing four of the six teams scheduled to compete that night, who in a show of unity locked arms and took a knee after agreeing to postpone their fixtures to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who days earlier had been shot seven times in the back by police in Wisconsin.

Those were probably the most historical few days that we had, I would have to say ever, in my experience as a WNBA player.

Nneka Ogwumike, WNBPA president

A few hours earlier, just over 100 miles away in Orlando, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Milwaukee Bucks had decided not to play game five of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic. Matches would later be postponed in Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Soccer (MLS), while nine National Football League (NFL) teams cancelled their scheduled practices on 27th August. In Cincinnati, tennis star Naomi Osaka announced she would not take part in her semifinal at the Western and Southern Open, prompting tournament organisers to suspend play for a day.

It was a powerful, uniform response to social injustice and systemic racism that had seldom been seen before in sport. The message, though, was loud and clear: enough is enough. 

“Those were probably the most historical few days that we had, I would have to say ever, in my experience as a WNBA player,” says Ogwumike, speaking to SportsPro in early December. “We had a vigil that we realised we needed to have early on for us to recognise lives lost, how a lot of what is happening in the world right now is impacting us individually, and as people with platforms in sport.

“Following that, though, for the first time ever we had all the players in one room, and we were talking about next steps, because it didn’t just stop at not playing that day.”

The WNBA was at the forefront of a rising tide of athlete activism in 2020, one that can be traced back to the murder of George Floyd, whose killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May sparked global outrage and further exposed the deep-rooted racial inequalities underpinning society. It was a moment in time that served as the catalyst for the biggest civil rights movement in recent times, setting off months of protests in the US and beyond, and also spurring sportspeople far and wide to use their platform to demand change.

Athletes influenced everything in 2020, from government policy and sports marketing to public opinion and presidential elections. Acts of solidarity and defiance became synonymous with sport’s post-lockdown restart as those competing sought to raise awareness of discrimination and injustice through their support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Iconic instances of activism previously separated by years were becoming an almost weekly occurrence. As some world leaders fumbled in the face of crisis, athletes seized the responsibility to challenge the most pressing societal issues on a global stage.

According to Phil de Picciotto, the founder and president of global sports and entertainment agency Octagon, the athlete response to the events of last year “was inevitable”. 

“Sports and entertainment have become a microcosm of our society and a mirror onto our society, and oftentimes the trendsetting part of our society in terms of popular culture and otherwise,” he observes. “There is no one-size fits all. Some leagues, some teams, some individuals feel that the boundaries are in one place, and some feel that they’re in different places, and that again is an exact mirror of our society, because not everybody feels the same way about everything.

“In fact, it’s more polarised and there are more different opinions than ever these days, and we’re seeing that reflected through athlete activism.”

Naomi Osaka was widely praised for raising awareness of racial injustice on her way to winning last year’s US Open

Even before the widespread athlete protests in late August, the WNBA had decided to dedicate its 2020 season – one which took place inside the bio-secure ‘Wubble’ at Florida’s IMG Academy – to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by Louisville police in her home in March. A new social justice council was formed to lead conversations around societal issues such as race, voting rights and LGBTQ advocacy, while the league also committed to promoting BLM and the ‘Say Her Name’ campaign, both of which were displayed on player warm-up shirts.

“It was unanimous across the board that that was a non-negotiable, being able to continue to represent on the social justice front as we have in past years,” explains Ogwumike, a six-time WNBA All-Star for the Los Angeles Sparks. “We were able to communicate that with the league and our board of governors, and there was no objection, there was a lot of fervour. Through ownership, management, the WNBA front office and the players, there was this camaraderie that we all shared for us to be able to make this season not just safe, but especially meaningful in a time in which people are looking for an outlet.”

It would be doing the WNBA a disservice to not recognise that the organisation has been a flag bearer for athlete activism for years – it just hasn’t been afforded the level of exposure that makes people take notice.

In 2016, for example, players for the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever became the first athletes to publicly support the BLM movement when they wore T-shirts to their games in defiance of the league’s dress code to protest the Minneapolis police shooting of Philando Castle. Early last year, Maya Moore, a four-time WNBA champion and the league’s MVP in 2014, announced an extended leave from basketball to focus on her advocacy for criminal justice reform. Even as recently as July, when Dream co-owner and deposed Republican senator Kelly Loeffler called on the WNBA to drop its support for BLM, the response of the players was to endorse Raphael Warnock, her Democratic opponent.

“You just have to figure out as an athlete, and as a collective most importantly, just what you want that to look like, and understanding your own make up,” says Ogwumike, who was born in Texas to Nigerian parents. “In the WNBA we’re a league of 80 per cent Black women, or a league of women. We have marginalised communities in our league in so many different ways.

“For us to be able to align with appropriate initiatives, movements, causes, organisations, brands, we have to stay true to ourselves, we stay true to who we are. Us being unapologetic about that dispels that discomfort or the ignorance that we experience. So I think by us naturally being ourselves, we are political, because we are women and mostly Black, so we roll with that in a way that doesn’t misalign.”

Indeed, the WNBA has long acknowledged that its power lies in the whole, a reality that athletes at large bought into in 2020. Activism in sport has historically been linked to individuals, whether it be John Carlos and Tommie Smith for their famous podium protest at the 1968 Olympic Games, or former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 began the league-wide movement of kneeling during the US national anthem.

It’s more polarised and there are more different opinions than ever these days, and we’re seeing that reflected through athlete activism.

Phil de Picciotto, Octagon founder and president

While those efforts did not go unnoticed, it has been too easy in the past for athlete activists to be portrayed as rebellious outliers. Carlos and Smith were kicked out of the Olympics and ostracised for their actions in Mexico City. Kaepernick, meanwhile, has been effectively blacklisted by the NFL since 2017 and was initially vilified for his activism by much of the American public.

Last year, however, it was athletes as a collective who gave sport and society no choice but to confront some uncomfortable truths. It was no longer about the activism of an isolated individual, but rather entire teams who were prepared not to play before those that govern them commit to upping their social justice efforts.

We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter. #InspireChange pic.twitter.com/ENWQP8A0sv

— NFL (@NFL) June 5, 2020

As a result, the insincere statements and empty promises that have been the extent of sport’s response in the past were ostensibly replaced by tangible action. In August, the NBA created a US$300 million fund to support Black communities. The NFL, which made a US$250 million pledge of its own to combat systemic racism, admitted it had been wrong not to heed player protests. Other organisations unveiled plans to increase diversity in an attempt to make their sports more inclusive.

The collective power of the athlete was being harnessed more than ever before, and it was working.

“That speaks to history, outside of even just sports, there’s more strength in numbers,” Ogwumike notes. “Especially so when you have athletes with platforms, because those numbers reach incredibly further, because of all the eyes that they have on us.

“I can’t speak for the C-suite people, but ultimately I can imagine that our voices are louder when we stand together. When you stand together, it’s very difficult for someone to say no to a group than it is to an individual.”

Last year did still provide room for some individuals to stand out. The best example of athlete influence in the United Kingdom came in the form of Marcus Rashford, the 23-year-old Manchester United striker whose #MakeTheUTurn campaign at the beginning of lockdown resulted in the British government providing free meals to 1.3 million underprivileged schoolchildren during the summer holidays. In November, a further policy change saw the government commit more than UK£400 million to support poor children and their families in England, following further lobbying by Rashford.

The campaign, driven by Rashford’s own experiences of food poverty growing up, gained much of its momentum on Twitter, which said in December that the England international’s open letter to members of parliament (MPs) ranked as the UK’s third-most retweeted post of 2020. For much of the year, Rashford’s bio on the social media platform – where at the time of writing he boasts four million followers – included a link to FareShare, the charitable network he partnered with in March to help deliver food to vulnerable communities across the UK.

Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford helps to shift food at a FareShare warehouse

Rashford’s work helped raise enough money to enable FareShare to distribute the equivalent of over 9.5 million meals for children and families who might not otherwise eat. The awareness created resulted in monthly visits to the charity’s website ballooning nearly 15 times to 350,000. And according to James Persad, the company’s head of marketing and campaigns, Rashford’s involvement has opened doors that otherwise would have proved difficult to unlock.

“We’ve seen a huge number of individual donors making single or monthly donations to FareShare, nearly a hundredfold increase in the number of individual givers,” Persad tells SportsPro. “Previously Fareshare were very much focused on a business-to-business – i.e. the food industry – audience, and also the government. What Marcus has done is open up this enormous consumer-facing channel and profile, which has really helped Fareshare to diversify its income base and make us more secure for the future, which has been a really great outcome.”

There are, of course, a concoction of factors that prompted sportspeople to take a stand in 2020. The pandemic had already afforded people time to pause and reflect on the structures of society before the killing of Floyd, but the combination of the two created a unique set of circumstances for athlete activists. The bubbles in which leagues such as the WNBA resumed meant players spent more time together and were able to coordinate their activities. It is also impossible to talk about the rise of athlete activism without mentioning the evolution of social media, which has enabled sports stars to have their message reach millions of followers at the push of a button.

Our voices are louder when we stand together. When you stand together, it’s very difficult for someone to say no to a group than it is to an individual.

Nneka Ogwumike, WNBPA president 

Yet for all the good that the likes of Ogwumike and Rashford have helped achieve, being politically active remains a complex decision for athletes, who have generally faced a backlash from those not aligned with their cause. Then there is also a question of whether an athlete has the energy to maintain a high level of on-field performance while balancing their commitments to social justice elsewhere.

For de Picciotto, who has long been supportive of athletes who want to use their platform to better society, the decision should come down to whether or not activism is natural and authentic to the individual.

“Sometimes these days – and I think that this is unfortunate – the way to break through the clutter is to become more and more extreme, to become louder and louder,” he considers. “It is exhausting for those who decide that they want to be the loudest, because then you get into a competition with other people who want to be the loudest. You’re putting stuff out there, some of it sticks and some of it doesn’t stick, and to do that on a long-term basis I think doesn’t work, which leads us to this understanding or awareness that many things in the world are becoming shorter term.

“That 15 minutes of fame is now closer to five minutes of fame. People come and enter the landscape and then they leave the landscape. Playing careers are shorter and shorter. If an athlete gets too distracted and isn’t developing him or herself on the pitch, then their earning potential is going to be limited, ultimately their influence is going to be limited, and they’re just not going to be able to optimise what they do on this exceptional basis.”

The WNBA dedicated its 2020 season to Breonna Taylor

However long the modern sportsperson spends in the spotlight, the last 12 months have proved that they will not be prepared – as Fox News host Laura Ingraham once quipped – to shut up and dribble. Many have already labelled 2020 as the year of the athlete activist, but really it was the year when things started to change, when sportsmen and women grasped the true power of their voice.

It remains to be seen how sports on a broad scale will continue their social justice efforts when things return to some sort of normal. But for one league in particular, it is no surprise to find that activism will remain part of its normal well into the future, just as it has been since its inception.

“This year, it’s really meant a lot to me when it comes to resilience, both individually and as a group,” Ogwumike reflects. “We’re so unified in a way that is hard to turn away from, and we represented that time and time again, especially this season. I think that network, that connection that we developed over the season, it’ll be historical – not just in looking back, but also in how we move forward.

“We don’t do it for the recognition, but we certainly do it for those who aren’t recognised, because that’s who we are. For us to be able to contribute to that growth in the W and for women in sport, I think it’s really only the beginning.

“It seems like we’ve been doing this for so long, but it’s really only the beginning.”

Endorsing the message

Once upon a time, a brand might have balked at the sight of one of their athlete endorsers striding onto the field in a T-shirt displaying Black Lives Matter (BLM). But according to Christa Carone, president of the North America division at sports agency CSM, there was a sense that sponsors were “getting right behind” athlete activism in 2020.

“Historically, maybe I didn’t want to put my money with a particular athlete because I didn’t have control over what he or she said,” says Carone, who, during her time as chief marketing officer at Xerox, created the brand’s partnership with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). “It was always the control factor with brands, and I know from my past life I felt much more comfortable putting my money with the WTA because I could trust there was a control of my messaging, but if all of a sudden I gave it to Serena [Williams] I might lose that control.

In many cases, what these athletes are advocating for, it’s good stuff. It is on the right side of right, so you just have to have tolerance for the haters.

Christa Carone, president of CSM North America

“[In] 2020 we lost a lot of control, so we had to be much more trusting and you had to have confidence that your brand attributes were aligned with the activism of the athlete. And in many cases, what these athletes are advocating for, it’s good stuff. It is on the right side of right, so you just have to have tolerance for the haters.”

Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player to ever grace the court, was famously apolitical during his playing career as he sought to build a brand that would ultimately change the face of athlete marketing. There is a sense now that a similar shift is happening, but one towards where sportsmen and women are supported in their activism by corporate entities that see value in throwing their weight behind social causes, especially when trying to reach a younger generation of consumers more likely to spend their money with brands whose principles mirror their own.

Indeed, if athletes are seeking a platform to use their voice, there is a growing sense that brands will be prepared to give it to them.

“There are lead brands and there are challenger brands,” says Phil de Picciotto, president and founder of Octagon. “These days there are more and more challenger brands, and they need to make a name for themselves as well. They will be much more risk tolerant because they’ve got much less to lose, and they don’t necessarily have a consumer base who knows about them. Their reason for aligning with athletes and programmes is very often awareness, so they will maybe encourage athletes to speak their mind, particularly in conjunction with this evolution, which is that we are now experiencing really rapid nichification of audiences.”

Nike is one brand that has previously benefited from jumping on an athlete’s activism. In 2018, the US sportswear giant teamed with castaway National Football League (NFL) quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who at the time had been unable to find a new team after starting the league-wide national anthem protests, to run an advertising campaign under the slogan: ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’ While the controversial ad led some Americans to call for a boycott of Nike products, it won the award for outstanding commercial at the Creative Arts Emmys and saw the company’s share price soar.

Nike’s decision to support Colin Kaepernick in 2018 saw the company’s share price soar

However, incorporating political statements within commercial messaging also has its risks. Nike made a similar play in 2020 when it created ‘You Can’t Stop Us’, an ad spot which featured athletes including Kaepernick, Naomi Osaka and LeBron James, and which highlighted values such as diversity and inclusion. But it was later reported by the Financial Times that a group of Black Nike employees had voiced objections to the release of the commercial, requesting that the company publicly acknowledge its own internal shortcomings on equality before promoting the ideal in its marketing.

Indeed, wanting to be seen as more progressive and socially conscious is one thing, but brands will also have to address their own practices if they intend on sponsoring athletes who are likely to be more selective about who they partner with.

“Authentic is the most overused word in marketing, but I’m not quite sure that at the end of the day that authenticity often translated into real action,” says Carone. “If I was the CEO of the company, it’s the same message I’m giving my employees: black lives matter, we believe in inclusion, we believe in equity, and we are looking internally at how we should be addressing our policies and our practices.”

This article features in Issue 112 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.

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