San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and then quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams. Photo: AP Photo

The notion that sport and politics shouldn’t mix is nonsensical and laughable. Sport by nature is deeply political.

In South Africa the Springbok was a symbol of racism which is why sporting sanctions were such an important tool in bringing down apartheid.

And a number of dictators and tyrants have propped up their oppressive regimes by hosting major tournaments in a bid to massage their images and pretend that things are normal.

Mobutu Sese Seko used the Rumble in the Jungle fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman as a PR exercise just like the military junta that governed Argentina did with the 1976 World Cup, two years after coming into power through a coup.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine to prove his misguided belief of white supremacy. Jesse Owens had other ideas. He smashed that notion into pieces and gave Hitler the middle finger by winning four gold medals. That wasn’t just a win but a loud political statement that still echoes decades later.

Despite that there are people who are still offended by athletes expressing their political opinions but have no problem when people from other professions do the same thing. It’s like they only want them to be robots, lifeless and only there for their amusement.

A simple gesture from Colin Kaepernick, kneeling during the national anthem in his previous life as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers before he was blackballed by owners and found himself club-less, has turned him into one of the most important figures in sport.

He literally sacrificed his career for the greater good in protest against racial injustice in the United States of America. A number of people told him to keep politics out of sport, a bizarre statement from people who also want athletes to be role models. But when their way of being good role models conflicts with their bias they get offended and want them to be soulless robots. You can’t have it both ways.

There’s no winning for athletes in a double-edged sword situation that sees them losing either way. Keep silent and you are questioned, speak up and you are told to stick to sport.

It was quite amusing when I saw Khama Billiat tell people to keep his name out of the political situation in his home country Zimbabwe just before Robert Mugabe’s almost four-decade long reign ended.

But what the Khama people were talking about was Botswana’s President Ian Khama who called on Mugabe to resign. Billiat’s ignorance aside, it was the desperation to not get caught up in the situation that prompted him to call for people to leave his name out of politics.

There’s no doubt that Billiat had an opinion on the matter just like everyone else with a brain.

But the fear of being told to stick to sport or being branded as some political figure forced him to keep his opinion private.

There are a lot of athletes who are like Billiat, who choose silence over being called names, or worse, being victimised. It’s sad because as a public figure their voice carries a lot of weight.

I wasn’t surprised when hardly a murmur came from the footballing fraternity during the xenophobic attacks that claimed so many lives.

Only a few footballers spoke out against the barbaric actions that led to the death of their teammates’ countrymen.

I love Didier Drogba not just because of what he did as a footballer but how he used that status to stop a civil war in Ivory Coast. I never watched Socrates play but I know about his involvement in the co-founding of Corinthians Democracy - the movement that stood up to the military dictatorship that governed Brazil.

I choose Cristiano Ronaldo over Lionel Messi because he isn’t moved by getting a quick buck from a dictator but would instead sell his Golden Boot to help build schools in Gaza which is occupied by apartheid-Israel.

It’s the same reason why I pick Diego Maradona over Pele, because of the former’s political consciousness.

It’s hard to openly speak up for what you stand for, especially when you are an active sport person because you worry about what your sponsors will say and how your fans who disagree with you will react.

I don’t blame them for choosing silence. We have boxed them to be “robots” which means that any act of defiance or speaking out is almost impossible and takes a lot of guts because of how high the stakes are.

Saturday Star

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