Toward tangible change: the power of campaigning for modern sports activists

Flood lit football pitch at night with players playing on turf.

“Everything,” as the German novelist Thomas Mann observed, “is politics”.

Sport in particular, with its enormous appeal across borders, cultures and classes, combined with the truly global reach of its showpiece events, is a very effective and oft-deployed diplomatic tool. As an industry or career, it is also intensely meritocratic. More than almost any other, its professionals have tended to be promoted and revered on account of their ability – rather than their race, class, background, or connections.

This means that representation of minorities at the elite level is and has almost always been, far higher than other ‘high-profile’ industries like politics or the media.

Such healthy minority representation, combined with the almost unrivalled international platform that elite sport and its tournaments provide, has made the industry an especially fertile setting for activism.

Consequently, the annals of professional sport are littered with examples of individuals using their platforms to demand change in a compelling way.

Muhammad Ali was – among the stiffest of competition – one of the highest-profile conscientious objectors and civil rights activists of his generation. Billie Jean-King and Martina Navratilova are known just as much for their positions on women’s rights, as they are for their glittering tennis careers. And who could forget Tommie Smith and Peter Norman’s Black Power Salute; one of the most iconic images in sport.

Thus, despite much contemporary discourse around the likes of Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, or, even more recently, Simone Biles, Tom Daley and Naomi Osaka suggesting otherwise, activism in sport is not a new phenomenon.

What is new, is the increasing influence and prevalence of a certain breed of sports activist. One which has evolved beyond symbolising change, via the example they set or the words they say, to being active agents of it.

Best encapsulated in the UK by the Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford, this new breed of sports activist is not satisfied with the pervasive, well-intended but ultimately less effective ‘white-font-on-black-background post’ genre.

Instead, they orchestrate complex, multi-faceted, professional advocacy campaigns to engender the change they want to see. They make bold, but clear and actionable demands of government, organisations and institutions with a stridency that would make even the most virulent of 20thcentury athlete activists blush.

Our recent global authenticity research highlights how brands and organisations must take the time truly to understand their customers’ beliefs, motivations, communities and values – regardless of age or generation – and focus on what is most important to today’s increasingly connected (and vocal) consumer. This model of athlete campaigning is, in part, a reflection of the activist consumer of 2021, and it is proving incredibly effective.

In Britain, Rashford has almost singlehandedly prompted three government U-turns in less than a year.

Moreover, the England rugby star Maro Itoje’s #DigitalDivide campaign, which demanded free provision of laptops and internet to disadvantaged home-schooling children during lockdown; and the Australian rugby and cricket players; who joined forces to urge rapid climate action in the wake of last year’s bush fires, have both earned media and affected culture at a global scale.

But what factors determine the efficacy of these campaigns? And, similarly, what steps should an athlete or player considering establishing one take to maximise their chances of success?

  • Pick a goal – be ambitious, be clear, be real

This is the bedrock of all successful campaigns and the primary difference between symbolism and bona fide advocacy.

Ensure your demand is simple, bold and uncompromising so that the change you are demanding is easy to communicate and even easier to understand.

Crucially, this demand cannot just be a broad call for ‘change’. It needs to contain a workable solution, steeped in reality, so that your demands can conceivably be met, and everyone knows what you want.

  • Be unflinching but empathetic – keep the decision-maker onside

Without a keen understanding of the institution and individuals that will, ultimately, be responsible for meeting your demands or not, you run the risk of shouting into a void.

In falling into this trap, you’ll earn attention but little else.

Whether that institution is a club, a governing body, a league, or even an entire government, the fundamentals are the same: know your decision-maker(s), empathise with them and, crucially, avoid needlessly insulting them or appearing to take glee in antagonising them (a common misstep in many otherwise effective campaigns).

  • This time, it’s personal

What made Rashford’s work on Free School Meals so contagious, wasn’t the slick media strategy or the snappy ‘maketheUturn’ hashtag.

It was the emotional and personal story of his own experiences of hunger and the incredible lengths to which his mother went to prevent them.

Being able to draw on your own story, will give you authenticity and authority that will far outweigh any other element of the campaign.

  • Don’t be cowed – resistance is a compliment

The status quo exists for a reason. It will suit someone, somewhere.

These people it suits are likely to want to keep it so. And as a result, when one disrupts or threatens ‘business as usual’, those whom it suits are bound – to borrow a sporting term – to counterattack.

Even if these moves get aggressive and unnecessarily personal, as was the case with some MPs treatment of Rashford, they are a sign you are doing something right and should stay the course.

  • “Hit the channels”

The power of social media for athlete activists cannot be understated.

With thousands, oftentimes even millions, of fans hanging on your every word, shrewd use of your social channels can attract enormous attention, and reach more than any interview with even our most popular national newspapers.

However, when it comes to changing minds and influencing a decision, social media is not the silver bullet many perceive it to be.

Elections are not – as the new refrain goes – won on Twitter, and nor will your campaign be. Rashford, Itoje and even James Haskell – with his lockdown campaign with Grenade to reopen gyms – have all piled pressure onto decision-makers by taking command of the news agenda, and capitalising on the pre-existing interest in them as sportspeople, to get their message across.

Alastair Lyon, Account Manager

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