ANALYSES

Make Love, Not War – T-shirts, Athlete Activism and an Ideological Schism

Tribune
7 mai 2021
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

There have been several periods during recent Western history when slogan t-shirts were de rigueur amongst both public figures and people in general. Back in the late sixties tie-die t-shirts were commonplace, upon which were emblazoned messages such as ‘Make Love, Not War’.

Fast forward to the mid-1980s, and slogan t-shirts again became very popular in the West. When fashion designer Katherine Hamnett met Margaret Thatcher in 1984, she was wearing a t-shirt with ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ on it, a reference to the siting of US nuclear weapons on British soil.

Hamnett’s t-shirts were ubiquitous at the time, espousing everything from ‘Choose Love’ to ‘Stay Alive’. Maybe the garments were fashion irony, perhaps a plea for change, or simply a reaction to challenging times, but they coincided with heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In sport, some outcomes of these tensions included boycotts of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow (by the United States) and the 1984 edition in Los Angeles (by the Soviet Union). Looking back to the late 1960s, the Mexico Olympics in 1968 was notably marked by Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ Black Power salutes.

The 1968 Games also saw the killing of protestors by Mexican government forces, with four hundred people reportedly being shot dead.  Official sources claimed that rival student gangs had been fighting one another, though many believe that young people were responding to an increasingly dictatorial regime.

Now, slogan t-shirts seem to be on their way back, indeed in recent weeks we have seen Norwegian international footballers wearing them ahead of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying games. On the front of the shirts was emblazoned, ‘HUMAN RIGHTS On and Off the Pitch’, a reference to concerns about the treatment of migrant workers by Qatar (where next year’s tournament will be held).

T-shirts in general have also been causing problems in China too, with social media activists and even the Chinese government calling for or supporting a boycott of H&M and Nike. This follows the corporations’ questioning of cotton supplied to them from the Xinjiang region, from which there have been reports of Uyghurs forced labour.

Given their respective involvement in sport, this poses an interesting dilemma for H&M and Nike, especially the latter. The US sportswear and lifestyle brand has spent the last eight years crafting a strategic market position that accentuates respect and equality.

Yet Nike now finds itself up at the frontline of a global ideological schism, not helped by its contractual relationship with the Chinese Football Association and its long-time commercial pursuit of China’s basketball fans. Nike’s predicament embodies what is happening to many Western organisations, as power shifts across a rapidly transforming global economic and political landscape.

One thing seems certain however: we shouldn’t anticipate a surge in the popularity of slogan t-shirts in China, unless perhaps they are promoting the words of President Xi Jinping. Indeed, the thought of Chinese athletes appearing at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing wearing ‘Say No to Nike’ t-shirts seems fanciful.

Norwegian football’s current superstar is Erling Haaland, a player of such talent that stories abound of his imminent multi-million-dollar transfer to one of world football’s leading clubs. Probably somewhat unwittingly, he seems to have become the poster-boy for Western liberalism, albeit a compromised one.

Haaland’s appearance in a Qatar protest t-shirt has catapulted both him and the issue of kafala labour markets into the global spotlight. His apparent condemnation of this small nation in the Gulf stands in contrast nevertheless to his social media posts from late 2020, when he was in Qatar for medical treatment and openly celebrating the country.

Yet in the simple wearing of a slogan t-shirt and in his contradictory statements and actions, Haaland demonstrates what it means to possess Western liberal values. In these terms, he is perfectly entitled to openly express his personal views. Tellingly, neither governing bodies nor commercial partners have sought to stop or distance themselves from him or the actions of his teammates.

And with the likes of Naomi Osaka, Lewis Hamilton and Megan Rapinoe also freely expressing their personal views – on issues ranging from gender to the environment – sport and liberalism seem to be ascending to an increasingly prominent position in the West.

It is such athlete activism that has helped drive labour market reforms in Qatar, which will presumably continue as Haaland and others shine a spotlight upon the need for continuing changes. There have already been some notable changes in Qatar, for example LGBTQ flags and symbols can be displayed inside stadiums at the World Cup.

However, this is where athlete activism comes up against some not insignificant ideological challenges. More conservative sections of society in Qatar view such changes as a challenge both to their own traditional values and to the norms and conventions of Islam. Viewed from certain parts of Doha, the enforcement of liberal values is seen as being insidious and unacceptable.

In the same way, the individual expression of views that run contrary to a prescribed government position is not something that China will countenance. This strident position is especially significant given the economic interdependence that many countries now have with China.

Whilst some athletes have stood firm in their view about Qatar, far fewer have adopted a critical public position on China, possibly for fear of antagonising their paymasters and commercial partners. Which thus inevitably raises the issue of why some athletes decide to protest, what they choose to protest about, and how they engage in a protest.

Some athletes will see their slogan t-shirts as a right, but in taking such individual actions, when it comes to countries like China, they are taking a decision to step-up to the ideological frontline. In such cases, their contradictory actions become much more morally charged; they also put the athletes centre-stage in a global ideological schism that extends way, way beyond t-shirts and football pitches.

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