Influencers on and off the Field: Athletes Weighing In on the Palestinian Cause

The sports environment is vast, and its political and diplomatic dimensions cannot be analyzed exclusively from the perspective of a single nation. It is critical to comprehend sports and their political implications through the diverse stakeholders involved, including athletes.

An increase in athlete activism, in recent years, has resulted in significant changes. The American quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, began kneeling during the national anthem performance before his games in 2016 to protest racial and social inequality in the United States. Although his activism forced him to retire early from his sporting career, he began a social movement that expanded across the sports community worldwide.

In the past weeks, we have witnessed the activism of many international athletes, sports teams, and fans, on and off the field, standing with the Palestinian cause, as the conflict is going through one of its bloodiest stages in recent history.

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Tensions have recently risen in Jerusalem, with Israeli police regularly targeting Palestinian demonstrators. Protests in Jerusalem erupted in response to an Israeli court decision that threatens the disposition of 550 Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Athletes have used various social media platforms to portray their support for Palestine and in solidarity with its people. Aside from many Arab athletes and teams who hold the Palestinian cause at heart, the support came from all over the world.

Mohamed Salah
Mohamed Salah

To name a few, Mohamed Salah – Liverpool’s forward Egyptian footballer – tweeted a call to the world leaders to make sure the violence and killing of innocent people is stopped, and NBA All-Stars Kyrie Irving – player for the Brooklyn Nets – and Damian Lillard – player for the Portland Trail Blazers – also posted in solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Damian Lillard saving Palestine
Damian Lillard saving Palestine

Kyrie Irving
Solidarity with Palestine / Kyrie Irving

The Egyptian footballer playing as a midfielder for Arsenal, Mohamed El-Nany, published a tweet declaring his solidarity with the Palestinian cause, commenting, “My heart and my soul and my support are for you Palestine.”

Mohamed ELNeny
Support for Palestine / Mohamed ELNeny

After the Board of Deputies of British Jews official, Tal Ofer contacted Lavazza Group, one of Arsenal’s sponsors, who reached out to the Club concerned with their position on El-Nany’s message, as it was considered not aligned with the sponsor’s community values of antiracism and antisemitism. It goes without saying that you can criticize the state of Israel without being anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, El-Nany simply offered solidarity with the people who are being dispositioned, terrorized, and killed.

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Arsenal’s response came with a letter from its management, “As with all employees of Arsenal, our players are entitled to express their views on their own platforms. That said we are speaking with Mo about this, so he understands the wider implications of his post. As a Club, we are committed to confronting and eliminating all forms of discrimination and continue to champion the need for equality and diversity across all areas of life”.

FC Arsenal’s response
FC Arsenal’s response

But other athletes have not had their teams or sponsors backing them as El-Nany was. Although some types of sports activism have been normalized, others, such as the 73 years old Palestinian-Israeli tension, are still limited for athletes to wage the socio-political influence they have while the same organizations may wage it regularly. 

Lewis Hamilton – British racing driver, currently competing in Formula One for Mercedes – deleted a story that portrayed the spread of the Israeli occupation of Palestine throughout the years, and posted another that showed the human cost of the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” with a neutral statement “How many more have to die before we act”. 

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton‘s Instagram story

This movement of support and solidarity was not virtually limited. The most obvious statement came after the FA Cup final when  Leicester City players, Hamza Choudhury – English footballer from Bangali origins – and Wesley Fofana – French footballer -, carried the Palestinian flag during their celebrations of their team’s winning its first title.

Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana
Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana

Also, french World Cup winner Paul Pogba and the Ivorian Amad Diallo displayed the Palestinian flag after Manchester’s draw against Fullham, in front of about 10,000 people, following the lifting of coronavirus restrictions.

Paul Pogba and the Ivorian Amad Diallo
Paul Pogba and Amad Diallo

The power to inspire that athletes have makes their freedom of expression strongly limited by sport bodies that claim the neutrality of their sports movement, while they tend to think of themselves as being above politics, and are well aware of the diplomatic implications of their actions and decisions. Nevertheless, this flurry of socio-political statements made by athletes, and the control they are facing by their affiliated organizations makes their ability to use sports’ influence to effect social change obvious.

Athletes have been long educated to not take a stand, to be neutral, and act as observers, if anything. Today, athletes are leveraging their socio-political influence inherited from the soft power that sport has, and by doing so they deconstruct the myth of the division between sports and politics and challenge a reform of the present sporting regulation on freedom of expression.

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