Sportspeople are no longer afraid to have their say on matters beyond their sphere
In the world of PR they talk about ‘authenticity’ and Rashford brings that in abundance
The influence that Marcus Rashford wields extends way beyond his campaign to put food on the tables of those struggling with the stigma attached to asking others for help.
A message to the family of a six-year- old who died when he was hit by a car while riding his bike. Recognition of a child’s school project, sent in by the boy’s mother. Thanks to warehouse staff delivering food to those in need. The responses to his tweets on these subjects range from 31,000 to 82,000.
Some perspective here. The Prime Minister’s tweet on the reasons to ‘get kids back to school’ had garnered around 9,500 responses by last night.
The concept they all talk about in the world of lobbying and PR is ‘authenticity’ and Rashford — who has now formed a taskforce with some of the UK’s biggest food brands to try to help reduce child food poverty — brings it in abundance.
he was born into a singleparent home in 1997, two years after Boris Johnson wrote in The
Spectator that single mothers were producing a generation of ‘ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children’.
Those who know him well say that we are witnessing a force of personality which Rashford’s mother Melanie has bequeathed.
‘She is formidable. An extremely strong character,’ says one source who has worked with a number of players at Manchester United.
But Rashford’s social media following is what leverages him power that players of previous generations could only dream of.
The capacity to bypass the politicians who would not know a single-parent, working-class family if they fell over one — health Secretary Matt hancock referred to the 22- year- old as ‘ Daniel Rashford’ in a live news bulletin — is making sport a vehicle for social and political change in a way unthinkable two years ago.
For years, many were disinclined to speak out. When hunter Davies was given access to Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham hotspur team for his seminal 1972 book
The Glory Game, he found nine of the 12 who expressed an opinion were Tory, while of the three Labour men — Ralph Coates, Cyril Knowles and Steve Perryman — only Perryman seemed to have any ‘political feeling’.
Davies, who went on to ghost write autobiographies with Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney, later reflected: ‘ The psychology of a footballer is that they are brought up to think about themselves. They are put into academies where the aim has to be to get ahead of everyone else if you want to come through.’
But when politicians and writers had all the power, footballers were embarrassed to express any views. ‘ There’s an anti-intellectual strain in the game which means expressing oneself can bring ridicule in the dressing room,’ said one ex-player. Sport and politics never mixed.
The fight against racial discrimination has done most to change that, catapulting Raheem Sterling into the kind of figurehead role which even he did not seem to anticipate.
Then came this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, taking voices in all sports — from football to motor racing — to new levels. When bigots tried to hijack Burnley’s efforts to take a knee, captain Ben Mee offered a powerful, hugely articulate response.
The source adds: ‘Black Lives Matter has been so significant and shown football players that they can be heard. For so long, there’s been an elitism in this country. I would call it an intellectual bias against workingclass players.’
The world of sport has changed irrevocably and for the better.
It seems incredible now that basketball’s hugely influential icon Michael Jordan did not publicly back the African-American politician harvey Gantt in his 1990 campaign for a Senate seat against Jesse helms, a Republican with borderline racist views. his refusal to do so, captured in the recent Netflix documentary The
Last Dance saw Gantt lose the election. It also seems unimaginable that Colin Kaepernick ( left) — still ostracised from the NFL and with no club, four years after being the first player to take a knee — would be cast out were he to stage that protest now. In the UK, articulate campaigners include Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold — football’s staunchest ally for food banks — while Gary Lineker, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville use their mass followings to discuss social issues. But in his new book Mind
Games, published later this month, former everton keeper Neville Southall, who now works in education for children who are struggling, argues that players and clubs can do more with their social media leverage.
In the film accompanying Rashford’s latest BBC interview, a mother is close to tears as she tells him how it feels to know someone who has lived the same experience is on her side.
‘It will stay with me,’ Rashford tells the interviewer. ‘ This is so similar to what I’ve known.’