A Perfect Model of Athlete Activism

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Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring their second goal with Jesse Lingard. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Professional sports stars have been increasingly vocal about politics over the past few years. Sometimes they do it well and sometimes they don’t, but seldom has a professional athlete used his public platform as effectively as Manchester United and England soccer star Marcus Rashford did this week. After the British government announced plans to withdraw a £120 million food-voucher scheme for disadvantaged children over the summer, Rashford set about reversing this policy in an exemplary manner. 

On Monday he published an open letter to British Members of Parliament utterly devoid of any vitriol or recrimination in which he politely and winsomely encouraged Parliament to overturn their initial decision. The letter is deeply personal and autobiographical, and begins by reflecting upon the author’s own experience of poverty as a child in working-class Manchester. “As a family,” he writes, “we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches. Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us.” He also compares the Euro 2020 soccer tournament that would have been happening right now under different circumstances to the realities that poor families are facing as a result of the coronavirus lockdown:

This summer should have been filled with pride once more, parents and children waving their flags, but in reality, Wembley stadium could be filled more than twice with children who have had to skip meals during lockdown due to their families not being able to access food (200,000 children according to Food Foundation estimates).

One of the most impressive things about the letter is that it eschews any party-political points-scoring in favour of an appeal to shared pre-political commitments to the common good. Addressing MPs of all parties, Rashford asks, “political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?” In fact, throughout all of his interviews, appearances, and writings during his “Make The U-Turn” campaign, Rashford has chosen to remain completely above the political fray, making his case with the kind of courteous persistence which has allowed the government to walk back its plan without too much loss of face.  

He could easily have taken another route. Towards the beginning of the lockdown MPs engaged in a kind of bizarre scapegoating of soccer players for not taking greater pay cuts and contributing more money to coronavirus relief efforts. Similar criticism was not levelled at, say, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or London financiers. In fact, it looked for all the world like the politics of class warfare, with privately educated Conservative politicians taking aim at working class boys whose personal incomes have far outstripped their own. One Conservative MP, Julian Smith, accused soccer players of living in a “moral vacuum”. In spite of all this, Rashford chose to suppress any animus he might justly feel towards the government in favour of persuading them to change their policy. He even joked lightheartedly on Twitter this morning with the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who led the public shaming of soccer players earlier in the year and who today mistakenly called him ‘Daniel Rashford’ on national television. 

Perhaps the most impressive feature of Rashford’s campaign, however, is his awareness of and advocacy for entire families, not just their children. He realises that children rarely succeed outside of the kind of stable, loving, and supportive context that his own mother provided for him, reminding readers that “the man you see stood in front of you today is a product of her love and care.” Consequently, he makes a heartfelt plea for the government to recognize and support the people who are primarily responsible for the well-being of children: 

I am asking you to listen to their parents’ stories as I have received thousands of insights from people struggling. I have listened when fathers have told me they are struggling with depression, unable to sleep, worried sick about how they are going to support their families having lost their jobs unexpectedly, headteachers who are personally covering the cost of food packages for their vulnerable families after the school debit card has been maxed out; mothers who can’t cover the cost of increased electricity and food bills during the lockdown, and parents who are sacrificing their own meals for their children. In 2020, it shouldn’t be a case of one or the other.

 Yesterday, the government relented and reversed its decision. Politically inclined celebrities in the United States should study Marcus Rashford’s campaign closely to learn how fame and goodwill with the public can be effectively marshalled in pursuit of political outcomes. Articulate, respectful persistence that tacks neither left nor right in its rhetoric but appeals to the common sympathies of the public is still the best way for cultural figures to get things done in legislative terms. Half the world seems to have forgotten this in 2020. Marcus Rashford hasn’t. 

P.S.: For any American readers unfamiliar with the beautiful game, tune in to Manchester United face Tottenham Hotspur this Friday to see Rashford at his day job. He is as impressive on the field as he is off it.





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