Do as the athletes do

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In Ancient Rome, aspiring politicians and wealthy elite looking to climb the social ladder would host Munera games to honor their deceased relatives. As the empire grew, so did the popularity of these games and the elite would use them to curry political favor among the Romans. Sport, to the Roman elite, was a political and social tool to display power and wealth.

Modern sport and the media have used this model as well, using sport as a game for the wealthy at the expense of those looking for an escape from their dire situations.

Gladiators in the arena were often prisoners of war or people of lower social class looking for a way out. Their social class was called infames, literally infamous, because their lives were seen as a service to others. It was a social class dedicated for those using their bodies in service of entertainment. Ironically, they would choose this gladiatorial lifestyle because it presented a chance at fame and freedom.

Sport always deeply reflects society. Athletics tell us what and who we value as a culture and hold a mirror as a microcosm of societal issues and debates.

In this way, sports are, and always will be, a political endeavor. The endurance of that sentiment is what makes recent developments from the governing bodies of international sports especially troubling.

Last week, the governing body of Formula 1 racing, the International Automobile Federation (FIA), stated that Formula 1 drivers must not use their platform to make statements for their own “personal agenda.” This includes personal, political and religious statements. Unless the FIA grants approval in writing, drivers who make such statements will now be in breach of the rules.

This move by the FIA is only the latest in the sport to attempt to silence the platforms of its athletes.

I’m well aware the readers of Chatham County are likely not avid F1 fans the way I am (trust me, watch “Drive to Survive” on Netflix and you’ll be a convert, too). But there’s a much larger point to be made here and it goes well beyond motor racing.

The same quelling of political dissent was seen at the 2022 Qatar World Cup, where International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) scolded players and teams for attempting to wear LGBTQ+ armbands. There, FIFA said the 32 national soccer teams should "let football take center stage."

The armbands were meant to show concern about Qatar’s human rights record through a collective gesture during international matches. Seven European teams had agreed to wear the bands to “use the power of football to promote inclusion and send a message against discrimination of any kind as the eyes of the world fall on the global game,” according to a statement from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

Time and time again we see governing bodies, sports media and the general public fawn over the capabilities of athletes to perform at their sport. But when it comes to using that platform to advance social change or advocate for a cause, they’re told, as Fox News host Laura Ingraham infamously put it, to “shut up and dribble.”

This isn’t the first time Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the FIA and a former rally driver from the United Arab Emirates, has attempted to assert his dominance over F1 drivers and teams, and the importance of his organization. In recent years, the relevance of the FIA has been called into question as they impose unpopular regulations on and off track.

For example, in 2020 — when Ben Sulayem was vice president of the FIA — seven-time world champion and arguably the sport’s most popular driver, Lewis Hamilton, publicly advocated for F1 to do more around the Black Lives Matter movement. Before the Tuscan Grand Prix that year, he wore a shirt that read “Arrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor” and “Say Her Name” during the national anthem. He was condemned by the FIA for “failure to follow the instructions of the relevant officials for the safe and orderly conduct of the event.”

Five-time world champion Sebastian Vettel has been similarly condemned by the FIA in recent years for wearing clothing advocating for climate change-related issues and equality for LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Whether you are a fan of the sport or not, there is no denying F1 drivers, World Cup soccer players and athletes of all kinds stand atop an international platform with the power to make change. When that platform is deliberately knocked down by those in more powerful positions, it sends a clear message about the values of those higher-ups — and our society writ large. Power in sports still lies in the hands of those with money — the elites.

Speaking out through t-shirts, armbands, interviews or other political actions threatens the power of those elites and calls into question the systems which support its persistence.    

I’d like to think society has morally progressed beyond Ancient Roman blood sport. We no longer see public executions in massive stadiums or sword fights to the death in broad daylight. And yet, we are still relying on those same values to shape our current athletic world.

Rather than doing as the Romans did, we must center control of the narrative around those who capture our attention — the gladiators who risk their lives in race cars, the soccer pitch and beyond for the love of the game. It is then that we will see athletes for all that they are: not just playmakers, but changemakers.   

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

Formula 1, FIA, Qatar World Cup, politics in sports, political statements

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