Athletes are increasingly leaving a positive human footprint | Mark Middlemas
Why would this benefit an athlete’s commercial/brand career?
We live in the age where purpose matters – on and off the field of play.
Standing up for a cause beyond your sport and knowing your ‘why’ is becoming increasingly important and valuable for today’s athletes.
Standing for something shows you care about society and businesses increasingly want to partner with athletes that champion a purpose and have the same or similar values to them. Making a stand is nothing new and it is not just the super athletes who are getting in on the act as society and business shifts towards a more equal, diverse and inclusive position.
A much longer tail of athletes, teams and sports is benefitting and can benefit from the things they genuinely care about.
Man City footballer Raheem Sterling standing up to racism is hugely important and so is former England footballer-turned professional boxer challenging gender stereotypes in sport and 2016 Olympic Gold medallist, Hannah Mills MBE, championing sustainability through her global, plastic-free sport initiative Big Plastic Pledge.
Making a stand also sets up an athlete to continue their cause-related campaigning after they retire. By getting involved in a cause before they retire they can use their role model status to elevate the cause to a higher level, set a positive example and build a strong network before they take their campaigning to the next level in retirement.
Are there any cases in which they could in fact negatively affect their commercial/brand career by doing this?
There are various examples of athletes around the world making a stand where it has affected their career in a negative way – religion and human rights in particular.
A powerful example is the first woman Ballon d’Or Winner in 2019 Ada Hegeberg, who has fallen out with the Norwegian FA over her stance on equality in football in Norway. She missed the recent 2019 Women’s World Cup despite the Norwegian FA agreeing to equal pay for women representing Norway. Her comments below perfectly outline how sport and society are impacting one another and why she didn’t back down and play for Norway in the tournament.
- “Football is my biggest passion in life and I’ve worked really hard to get here. It’s so important to me so I can’t sit and watch things not go in the right direction.”
- “Winning all these trophies and having all this success gives you a voice. It’s not about me. It’s never been about me. It’s about getting the change for our sport. It should motivate a lot of others too. We’re all in this together.”
- “I got a question from a journalist asking ‘do you consider yourself a footballer or someone who fights for equality?’ and I said it’s impossible to be in football and not fight for equality.”
- “When we all stand together on this, to bring our sport in the right direction, we will be so strong.”
- “The more people give attention to equal pay, the easier it gets. I think we should look at ourselves and what we can do to develop the sport to increase the level and obviously that’s to perform, to increase the level. That’s our biggest job.”
- “But it’s not always about money, either. It’s about attitude and respect. We’re talking about young girls getting the same opportunity as boys – giving them the same opportunity to dream.”
- “If you can change attitudes in the beginning, things will change.”
- “The men in the suits can’t ignore that. They are going to understand one day. They are going to understand that this is about society and it’s about modern football.”
Why do athletes branch out beyond their sport rather than sticking with something within their specific sport?
They are role models and have a powerful platform to help deliver change and many are now using their voice to affect the many issues we face in the world. They want to leave a positive human footprint and that is fantastic to see and hear.
Athletes are increasingly making stands within their own sport to make it better in some way. It may be 2016 Olympic Gold medal swimmer, Adam Peaty, pushing for and supporting a global swimming league because he didn’t feel the global governing body was doing enough to help professional swimmers between Olympic cycles or Ronnie O’Sullivan campaigning to take snooker to better equipped venues.
There are others who want to drive change in areas of society outside of sport like sailor Hannah Mills MBE in sustainability, boxer Isaac Chamberlain with safer streets, Stacey Copeland with diversity and inclusion. These are all issues personal to the athlete that they want to do something about.
I applaud them for that as their positive influence makes the world and society a better place.
Why do you think this trend is increasing among athletes? What has changed in the global sports landscape that has facilitated this increasing trend?
Athletes are some of the most positive role models in society and living in this age of purpose they are increasingly wanting to deliver positive change through the influence they carry.
Also, brands and rights holders in sport are having to be increasingly accountable for their actions (sustainability, duty of care, mental health, diversity & inclusion, equality) and so this brings inevitable champions of purpose to the front of the debate.
Finally, in your opinion, what is the best example of an athlete using their profile and role model status to make a stand for something beyond their sport?
Raheem Sterling standing up to racism, Serena Williams empowering women & working mothers are both great examples of making a stand in the world.
However, the best example I have experienced personally is professional boxer, Stacey Copeland’s Pave The Way initiative. This athlete’s journey is beyond inspirational and the fact she is wanting to leave ‘a positive human footprint’ (her words) with her foundation that challenges gender stereotypes in sport and wider society is fantastic.
That’s the power of sport and the power of today’s athletes to leave the world in a better place than which they found it.