Sport cannot put moral blinkers back on
As the time draws near for a stock-take on the ravaged husk of sport in 2020, the temptation is to dwell on all that has been lost: the events, the communities, the livelihoods. Seismic shifts leave behind irrevocable structural change, but not always for the worse. If any solace can be derived from an accursed year, it is in the resolve of sports stars of all stripes to drive a bulldozer through the status quo. For Marcus Rashford or Lewis Hamilton, being an “influencer” no longer means hawking energy drinks on Instagram. It is their mandate to change the world.
You could be forgiven for finding such a platform grandiose. Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, clearly does, lamenting this week: “Let’s get back to being a sport and not being a political tool. Let’s get back to what we are about.”
Baxter is piqued by the incoherent guidance from Premiership Rugby on how best to show solidarity with anti-racism protests this weekend, with clubs choosing everything from taking the knee to lining up in the shape of a heart. And so, predictably, he falls back on the tried-andtrusted “stick to sport” mantra.
It is in Exeter’s interests to dial down the politics. They are clinging, with misguided ferocity, to remain known as the Chiefs, ignoring both the renaming of the Washington Redskins and the offence taken by Native Americans to the caricaturing of their heritage.
Defiance of any perceived posturing on matters beyond rugby is very much on-brand in this corner of Devon. But the implication of Baxter’s argument, that players should stay aloof from the concerns convulsing society, does the game a disservice.
No sooner had Baxter spoken than England, whose most recent 34-man squad included five from Exeter, issued a statement on behalf of the players. “We are not endorsing a political ideology,” it read. “We are uniting to combat racial discrimination.”
At a pivotal juncture in racial politics, it feels like exactly the type of stand that this England team, the most ethnically eclectic ever assembled, should be taking. Ellis Genge was racially abused during their last tour of South Africa. So, too, was Eddie Jones. These are not renegades manipulated into supporting the more extreme aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, but conscientious advocates acting, in many cases, on personal experience.
To listen to Baxter, though, was to see anti-racism portrayed as a fleeting fad. He called for any protests to be time-limited, as if entrenched injustice could be quietly forgotten about so long as players take the knee on a designated day. He suggested that “one minute of one day of the year” was enough to convey a powerful message. But there is a far longer battle to be waged against systemic inequality beyond whatever poignant gestures take place on the field.
In the court of public opinion, sports figures who reach beyond their job descriptions cannot win. Rewind just five years, to when a delegation of British athletes headed out to the one-off European Games in Baku. At the time, they were widely criticised for not speaking out against the dictatorial host, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president. One polemic raged that “we should accept that athletes represent the worst of us”. Now that they have finally found their voice, you might imagine that the backlash would relent. Instead, even those who do take the knee out of sincere belief face being depicted as quasi-Marxists or patronised with the usual get-back-in-yourlane responses.
Frankly, Baxter’s remarks leave you wondering whether the past few months even happened. As a coach, he is highly astute, but as a leader, there is little sign he recognises which direction the wind is blowing. This is a year when Rashford has forced the Government into a volte face on free school meal vouchers, when Raheem Sterling has debated on
Newsnight, and when a multiple Formula One champion called out his peers for their reticence on the killing of George Floyd. Once, “sticking to sport” might have been a convenient get-out clause. In 2020, it smacks of painfully misreading the room.
Rugby, as Baxter should hardly need reminding, can be a vehicle for good beyond its own parameters. At the 1995 World Cup final in Johannesburg, it provided nothing less than the coming-ofage moment for post-apartheid in South Africa. Today, it again has its part to play in the roll-back of ingrained racial inequities. This weekend, Premiership players will adopt different stances, from kneeling, raising a fist or standing in quiet contemplation. But the variety of protests is secondary to fact that they are happening at all.
It is easy to do nothing, to treat players as slabs of meat, denying them political outlets of their own. But potent forces are unleashed when athletes find common cause in their activism. We are living through an era when gymnasts are tearing up the code of silence that has enabled all manner of abuse, and when footballers are forcing politicians to think again.
Exeter, it seems, are determined to cling on to the old realities. Just as their kitschy Chiefs branding has had its day, so too has Baxter’s view that sport and politics occupy separate universes. Like it or not, they have never been more deeply enmeshed. It is high time, in this most febrile of years, that Exeter learned to move with the times.
Golden day: Nelson Mandela’s solidarity with Francois Pienaar when the Springboks won the World Cup in 1995 was a breakthrough moment, but Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter (below) wants to separate sport and politics