Lebron James, Marcus Rashford and why athletes shouldn’t stick to ‘just sports’

“We must always take side. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Wiesel

Only a few weeks ago, AC Milan star Zlatan Ibrahimovic voiced a rather controversial opinion that sports people should avoid getting involved in politics and stick to sports.

He called out four-time NBA champion Lebron James in an interview with UEFA, saying: “He’s phenomenal, but I don’t like when people with a status speak about politics. Do what you’re good at doing.

“I play football because I’m the best playing football. I’m no politician. If I’d been a politician, I would be doing politics.

“For me it is better to avoid certain topics and do what you’re good at doing, otherwise you risk doing something wrongly.”

Whilst athlete’s priorities lie within the sport that they’ve spent their lives mastering, it is not uncommon for them to voice their beliefs and stand up against injustice, and rightfully so.

The opinion Zlatan holds is a dangerous one and encourages people in a position of power and influence to remain silent, when their voices are often the loudest and can empower those that are oppressed. 

James responded to the footballer’s comments, saying “I preach about my people and I preach about equality, social justice, racism, voter suppression, things that go on in our community because I was a part of my community at one point and saw the things that were going on, and I know what’s still going on because I have a group of 300-plus kids at my school that are going through the same thing and they need a voice.

“I’m their voice and I use my platform to continue to shed light on everything that might be going on, not only in my community but in this country and around the world.”

Lebron James isn’t the only athlete known to have a foot in politics. Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford led a hugely significant campaign to end child food poverty in the United Kingdom that forced the government into two major U-turns, one of which reversed the decision to end free school meals during the school holidays, ensuring children from low-income families wouldn’t go hungry.

A number of NBA players also joined the Black Lives Matter protests across the United States last summer, Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings joined a protest in Birmingham, Premier League, Championship and WSL players continue to take a knee prior to kick off here in England.

Accusations of “politicising sport” or athletes “not knowing their place” are inherently wrong, we cannot label sports stars as “role models” yet still expect them to stay silent on the biggest issues that we continue to face as a society.

Athletes should always be encouraged to use their power and influence in the right way, to call out politicians, to take a stand, to join forces with communities standing up for what is right.

Their presence is noticed, and their voices are heard by people all over the world, regardless of political standing and they have the ability to impose real change – just ask Marcus Rashford.

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