Sport, “a powerful change agent”: an interview with Richard Lapchick

28 janvier 2021
Interview with Richard Lapchick, founder and director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality internationally recognized expert on sports issues, scholar and author. Conducted by Estelle E. Brun, Research Associate at IRIS.

Sport amidst US elections

Sport is often imagined as a means to unify and foster a common sense of belonging. Whereas modern presidents of the United States had traditionally used sports to appeal to a wide, bipartisan public in an attempt to unify Americans, Donald Trump deliberately politicised sport to further polarise society (Hartmann, 2020). The 2020 presidential elections’ results show that, while some observers had excepted a landslide victory for president-elect Joe Biden, high voter turnout also favourited current President Donald Trump as he has managed to attract new voters while apparently maintaining a large part of his original support base. Can we say that, today, sport is actually further dividing the American people?

In the earlier years of Trump’s presidency, I would agree that his act of politicising sport did further polarise society as it simultaneously unified each side even further. However, now I would argue that the reignition of player activism this past year amidst the Racial Reckoning has actually reversed the Trump-led division of the American people as it forced people to finally listen.

Will the election of Joe Biden and Kamal Harris signify a return to the traditional presidential use of sport – that is, as a unifying force? How will the Biden administration utilise sport, according to you?

I believe the Biden administration will allow and commend athlete activism – allowing sport to become an even stronger unifying force. Issues are at the forefront and the Biden administration will be addressing them using the most powerful change agent: sport.

Towards a normalisation of athlete activism?

You have been involved in human rights and political activism in sports for decades, notably by pioneering the sport boycott movement against South Africa under the apartheid regime. In a recent interview with Le Monde, you declared that the recent surge in political activism in sports in the United States was a “dream come true” and something you had been advocating for decades. Indeed, in addition to athletes taking stances against racial injustice and police brutality, leagues, clubs and sports brands have expressed their support to the Black Lives Matter movement. Although some concrete policies have been implemented, some observers have wondered whether these were genuine (Agyemang and Rector, 2020). What explains the surge in athlete activism today?

The surge can be attributed to not only individual athletes recognising the power of their voice but individual athletes recognising the power of their voice, collectively. While it’s traditionally been known that athletes can bring a great amount of attention to a subject, social cause or issue – this past year we’ve seen athletes realise that they can use their platform to create meaningful, measurable change by means of opting-out of seasons, lobbying, fighting for legislation and so forth. Now, athletes aren’t wondering if they should speak up – they’re wondering when and how they can speak up.

Do you consider that activism has spread throughout the sports industry, besides athletes? If so, how?

Yes, we’ve seen numerous professional sport organizations form social justice committees, overhaul their existing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and make large pledges towards dismantling systemic racism. Still, there is much work to do but the surge of athlete activism has made organisations realise that their athletes are their greatest asset.

What are concrete changes within the American sports industry in favour of racial equality and social justice? Do you believe that these changes, and activism overall, can bring concrete changes in the United States?

One that comes to mind is the several overhauls we’ve seen to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across professional sports leagues. Most notably, the National Football League (NFL) reinforced their existing Rooney Rule to ensure that equitable racial and gender hiring practices stem beyond the field and into the front office, which is much more comparable to the changes we’d like to see in the United States.

I believe these concrete changes were ignited by athlete activism. Therefore, I believe that athlete activism, as long as it persists, will continue to bring changes in-and-outside of sport. People are now listening to issues they simply may not understand due to upbringing because of the activism of athletes, so I believe the message will continue to get across and more actions will soon follow.

The Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes’ Commission, which was notably created to increase the representation of athletes and their interests in global sport governance, has begun consulting with athletes this summer in order to potentially call for an amendment of that rule. What do you think of the Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter and, more generally, about the IOC’s commitment to condemn political activism during its sports events?

I understand the Olympic committee’s logic behind the rule, which is that the Olympic Games must remain on athletes’ performances, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance. However, they failed to understand that athlete activism does aid in international unity. The power of sport – fueled by athlete activism – is far too large to be suppressed, especially on this platform.

How will the next few years look like in terms of political activism in sports, in the United States and beyond? Are we heading towards a global sports movement in which political activism is normalised?

The next few years will look promising as long as athlete activism continues to fuel change both on-the-field, in front offices and outside of sport. If that is achieved, I do foresee a global sports movement in which activism is normalised. Hopefully meaningful change will be achieved so that athlete activism can move onto the next social issues.

According to you, who has been the world’s most effective athlete activist? And why?

Several names come to mind as dozens of athletes have risked it all to create meaningful change. Among the most notable, in my opinion, is Colin Kaepernick. He brought racial issues to the forefront of the largest sport platform of the NFL. Colin knelt and fought for something far bigger than himself in 2016 – even costing him his job. With all the adversity he has faced and continues to endure since his protest, 2020 revealed to the world that Colin was right the entire time. There are also many NBA and WNBA players who have been leaders. I would single out LeBron James and Maya Moore.

Special thanks to AJ Forbes, Graduate Assistant of TIDES and Dr.Lapchick, for his help.

This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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