As corporations become more socially responsible, the sports community are pushed to do even more. Undoubtedly, the current pandemic has offered a wide range of significant opportunities to those with a more mindful approach to “social responsibility”.
For example, many companies transformed their factories to produce ventilators, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and so on, with some of them donating, instead of selling these products. Sports clubs despite being affected very badly by the pandemic also reacted to help through their charitable arms. AS Roma were one of the first clubs to react as the pandemic hit Italy first in Europe. Through its Roma Cares foundation, they paid for and delivered thousands of face masks and bottles of hand sanitiser to local hospitals, before setting up a GoFundMe campaign with a target of raising €500,000 in order to buy medical equipment. Equally. the Barça Foundation helped to get material to Catalonia and distribute it to different hospitals, organisations and health professionals.
More and more athletes understand they have a social responsibility and can use their image to drive change. During this coronavirus crisis, Messi made a reported donation of €1 million to be split between Hospital Clinic in Catalunya and another health centre in Argentina. Xavi Hernandez also donated €1 million to the hospital and the Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, donated €1m towards providing medical equipment in his home country. And that’s just to name a few examples.
Some athletes may pay lip service to charitable activities because it is a contractual obligation but for many, it is clearly an important factor in their lives. Swimmer Michael Phelps, eight gold medallist at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, gave some of his major financial gains to charity. Also, he used his $1 million bonus from his sponsor Speedo to create his own foundation to promote water safety, healthy living, and the pursuit of dreams.
Serena Williams is also a great example of committing not only money but time to the 13 charities she supports. Williams is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador who has helped build schools in Africa, she’s fought against breast cancer and with UNICEF helps promote access to education for children in Asia.
LeBron James has a deep interest in using the game of basketball to improve the world. He has used any relevant moment in his career to campaign for educating children. Once he said: “I won’t play this game forever. But the things that we’re doing in the communities, things that we’re doing in the gymnasiums, in the computer labs, they will last. When I’m done playing basketball, I can still go back to some of those same parks and see what we were able to accomplish that day”.
Athletes as activists
These days people really value authenticity and transparency and athletes have become a great voice to support relevant matters to the point of becoming activists. Fans recognise legitimacy and reward those clubs and athletes with loyalty. Manchester United’s striker Marcus Rashford, who experienced food poverty as a child, campaigned for kids in England to be able to have free meals over this last summer holidays. He forced Boris Johnson to change his policy to the point the Prime Minister announced a new £120m “covid summer food fund” for 1.3 million pupils in England. Rashford also helped to raise around £20 million for charity to feed school children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recently, introvert tennis player Naomi Osaka, used the US Open as a platform to help fight racial injustice. And by doing so she is not only raising awareness among her fans but also other players and the tennis community. There has always been a fine line between social engagement and political protest, so clubs need to strike a balance between supporting the causes espoused by their players without alienating governments, sports regulators and their fans.
Historically, many athletes have proactively fought for different causes. Born Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali converted to Islam and supported the advance of African Americans. In 1966 he refused to join the Army as he was against war and was stripped of his heavyweight title, missing his best years.
Can sport help correct the injustices of the past and help build a better future for all? This may be a difficult question to answer. However, finding a way to move forward will require principled leadership at all levels of society, including high profile athletes. The US has had a prominent tradition of athlete activism which is now expressing worldwide.
What’s next for social responsibility
It’s not surprising at all that athletes want to express their identities and principles in an out of sport. It is time to see athletes who speak up for who they are. But their actions need to be supported by all actors in sport, not just the athletes themselves.
Therefore, while mantras such as racial abuse, children, people, planet, ‘purpose ahead of profit’ make sense when times are good, social responsibility plays a key role when economies are on the verge of collapse. Businesses may be bankrupt or go into financial concern and therefore major figures play a key part as role models to keep their charity causes up and running to their best.
It may be tempting to cut back on expenses associated with charitable work at challenging times, but social engagement is an important reason for loyalty and needs to be protected.
Tània Vié Riba