Should sporting celebrities be political?

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Such sentences underline the difficulties when determining what is acceptable to say when it comes to topics that are even vaguely political. Of course there are clear cut cases where it is unacceptable. For example, any sportsperson supporting holy jihad. But when it comes to less clear cut cases, where should the line be drawn?

There have been numerous cases of sportsmen and women falling foul of their sporting authority’s rules. Recent cases that spring to mind include:

  • Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer was fined for wearing a “No. 40 decal” on his helmet to honour former Arizona Cardinals teammate Pat Tillman who was killed in Iraq. See this Outside the Beltway blog post.
  • The English Football Association was fined £35000 by FIFA after the England squad wore shirts with the annual British Legion poppy symbol.  See this See Independent Newspaper article.
  • Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, formally manager of Barcelona, has been charged by the English FA for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of imprisoned Catalan politicians. See this BBC Website story.

In the modern big money world of branding, you can understand why sporting bodies get all hot under the collar when people don’t stay on message, but is that acceptable?

You could argue that straying off message is not only against the rules, but also is direct defiance of your employment contract. I’m sure most of us who are employed could find something we dislike about our employer’s ethical, environmental, or personnel policies. But most of us choose to ignore these policies and keep quiet. Whether this is for fear of being disciplined, or just that it’s not such a big deal is irrelevant. By not doing anything, we acquiesce to our employer’s views. If we stick our head above the parapet, we must expect some push back. We’re disobeying their rules after all, whether we like it or not. If we continue to disobey the rules, we must expect the ultimate sanction to be a disciplinary case resulting in dismissal.

So should a sporting celebrity by allowed to speak out? Of course. I’d defend that to the hilt. The real issue is whether they’d do so, if they were to lose their income, fame, and livelihood as a result. Some would no doubt, but I’d suggest that in all the cases above, they know that any fine is small enough to not really matter in the long run. That’s OK too. It gives both sides a win-win. One side can speak out when they feel strongly about something, and the other can cry foul and demand retribution in the form of a small financial slap on the wrist.

Have something to say? Be my guest :-)

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