January 29, 2023

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Social Empowerment, At the Heart of Sports

Photo by eric anada from Pexels

Nelson Mandela once said "Sports have the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope, where there was once only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination."

Today, it is evident how global sports and athletes play a huge role in influencing the lives around the world through the messages they carry. I remember watching the FIFA World Cup in 2002 at a young age and supporting a Brazilian called Ronaldo. Back then, there were no armbands or messages on their jerseys, banners, or actions from players to signify the support of a certain cause.

Fast forward through the years, we see sports breaking barriers and bringing to light key messages. From 2010's FIFA world cup being hosted in an African country for the first time, to all major global sports such as the NBA, Formula 1 and football, all taking a knee on "Black Lives Matter", calling to attention the issues of racial inequality and police brutality. Even the recent Carabao Cup Final between Chelsea and Liverpool saw players and fans alike showing solidarity to Ukraine's struggles.

We even see how individual athletes are taking upon themselves to make responsible changes for the betterment of society. An example, Marcus Rashford, a current Manchester United player, calling the UK government to end UK child poverty. On the very next day, the policy for extension of free school meals was changed as a direct result.

Should we not view athlete's social responsibility in at least a similar light to that of corporations? After all, they are influential if not more compared corporate giants.

21st March 2022 

Companies and brands spend millions and billions to own the image right of sports athlete because of the outreach and impact they have. Therefore, when cases such as violence or rape such as that of Mason Greenwood comes to light, brands do not hesitate to pull and distance themselves from any further association. Hence it is not just merely what or who they represent, but their actions have to akin to being socially and morally responsible as well.

For investors, there is no denying that the issue of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) stands at the forefront of investment decisions. When there is any non-compliance, all relevant stakeholders take proactive actions to mitigate the problem at hand. Why? Because businesses must be held accountable as they have both a direct and indirect impact to the livelihood of people.

Tying both conversations together we should ask then, what about our local country athletes, both current and former? What standards should we hold them accountable to? Should we not view athlete's social responsibility in at least a similar light to that of corporations? After all, they are influential if not more compared corporate giants.

Certainly, there are athletes who have done so courageously. National diving champion Pandelela Rinong is a great example. She raised awareness of the sexual harassment involving her former coach through her own experience. Providing a future platform for future victims to be brave and thwarting future predators too. However, is that enough?

If we look at our men's double who won the bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics, amongst their sponsors were Malaysia Airlines, Yonex, Milo, Celcom and many more, most of which are companies that target the end consumers who are mostly Malaysians. Do they not then have a social responsibility to Malaysians?

Some may argue that our countries political landscape does not provide the freedom of speech that may provide livelihood backlash. But what then about a certain former world number one of our country? A recent posting of his on Instagram highlighted his appreciation on our political leader and hopes that the said leader will lead he will lead our country to a better future. A quick Wikipedia check and you will find the list of controversies plaguing this political leader.

I can come to an understanding should our athletes choose to stay silent, but it begs the question, what about those that speak out but do so irresponsibly? What accountability should we hold them to in shaping our nation's future? After all, they are still getting sponsors, they are marketing products and brands that have an influence on Malaysians both young and old.

Let us not forget or underestimate their presence on social media as it is not meaningless. They hold powers to shape the thoughts of so many generations, especially the young who idolise them for their achievements. Hence, are they merely individuals who are socially empowered, or do they have a role in social empowerment? I know I would hold them to the latter.


J.Y. is passionate about mental health and social exploitation issues. He is willing to speak his mind for the welfare of society. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the writer's own. 

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