Sport can­not put moral blink­ers back on

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Oliver Brown Chief Sports Writer

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

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