At times, athletes wish to express their identities and beliefs while on and off the playing field. But we must also recognize that their actions need to be supported by all actors in sport, not just the athletes themselves.
Steps to intervene should be taken only if views being expressed undermine others’ human rights. Freedom of expression must be exercised in ways that ensure respect for the rights and reputations of others. Here’s a look at the athletes who have been vocal about issues beyond premises of their sports:
India’s tennis queen Sania Mirza has been vocal about time and again about issues that have an impact in the society and also eventually on her herself. The former world no. 1 doubles player has always been hit out on social media by trolls following her marriage with Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik. Despite her achievements for India, people have resorted to questioning her integrity. Sania Mirza was one of the many Indian celebrities who spoke up against the gruesome gang-rape and murder of an eight-year-old in Kathua. She wrote on Twitter, “Is this really the kind of country we want to be known as to the world today ?? If we can’t stand up now for this 8-year-old girl regardless of our gender, caste, colour or religion then we don’t stand for anything in this world.. not even humanity.. makes me sick to the stomach.” A Twitter user told Sania that she was a Pakistani, since she was married to cricketer Shoaib Malik, and suggested she should stay away from commenting on India’s problems.
Sania hit back saying she was an Indian and NO LOW LIFE will tell her which country she belonged to. “I play for India,I am Indian and always will be.. and maybe if u look beyond religion and country one day you may just also stand for humanity,” wrote Sania.
Winner of two silver medals at the Asian Games 2018 and a national record holder, Dutee Chand became the first Indian sportsperson to speak up about her same-sex relationship. “I have found someone who is my soulmate. I believe everyone should have the freedom to be with whoever they decide they want to be with,” Dutee told The Indian Express. Dutee added she gained the confidence to speak up about her relationship after the Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and decriminalised homosexuality. “The Supreme Court of India has also struck down the old law. I believe nobody has the right to judge me as an athlete because of my decision to be with who I want. It is a personal decision, which should be respected,” Dutee said. Her road, though, is uphill as even though her family hasn’t directly objected her relationship, her elder sister has shown strong disapproval and Dutee claims, also threatened to expel her from the family.
Former Indian doubles badminton player, a world championship medallist, Jwala Gutta has also been vocal about many issues in past and even in the present that are shaping the Indian society. She urged Indian sports fraternity to “come out and condemn the violence” in the wake of protests against the amended citizenship act last December. Calling her peers “peace ambassadors”, Jwala posted a video on Twitter. “We are seeing the news and a lot of people are dying and I did not expect this. I request all the sportspersons of our country that we should come out and condemn violence,” Jwala said. “…violence against people and the people who are creating violence because we are the peace ambassadors of our country to the world and I think this is the least we could do,” the 36-year-old said. “Come out and condemn violence,” she added.
People from the Northeast have been subjected to racism in India. The number of cases had increased multi-fold since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hate crimes have also been on the rise across the country against people from the Northeast for their resemblance to the Chinese. Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri has condemned such actions and called for respect.
Speaking to the Quint, Chhetri said that it was shameful and a disgrace. “I think people who are doing it, and who understand the difference, are just ignorant. It’s just not right. You shouldn’t do it,” Chhetri said. “Imagine if the virus had originated from a place where people looked like you, or from your region. Let’s suppose you are working in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam or Sikkim, and people hound you or bully you or trouble you. How will you feel?” he added. George Floyd’s death triggered violent protests across the USA and became one of the biggest topics of discussion around the world in June. Sunil also commented, “It hurts me like anyone else. It is bad. But most of the time, it is due to ignorance, it is because of not knowing,” Chhetri said. “If you catch a person who is talking these things (racist remarks) you will find he is ignorant and not knowing the things,” Chhetri said during a Live Chat on Indian football team Facebook page.
Former India all-rounder Irfan Pathan has been at the receiving end of a lot of criticism after he expressed his concerns for students from Jamia following their protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Following the protests, Pathan wrote in his tweet, “Political blame game will go on forever but I and our country is concerned about the students of #JamiaMilia #JamiaProtest.” And following this tweet Pathan faced severe backlash. Defending his tweet, current Jammu & Kashmir coach-cum-mentor, Pathan opened up in an article in the Indian Express.
Speaking to Indian Express, the former cricketer said that he has earned the right to speak his mind.
“Let me start with a personal story. When I went to Pakistan in 2004 for the Friendship tour, I went to a college in Lahore along with Rahul Dravid, L Balaji, and Parthiv Patel. In a question-and-answer segment attended by 1,500 students, one girl got up and asked, almost in anger: why do I play for India despite being a Muslim? I stood up and said I am not doing any favours (ehsaan) by playing for India. It’s my country, and I am lucky, proud and honoured to represent it. It’s my mulk, my country, a place where my ancestors all come from. Everyone in that college clapped.
“If I can speak like that in Pakistan, in an open gathering, puffing out my chest, then I don’t need anyone’s permission in my own country to say what I feel. I have represented my country. Some people should realise that. When I ran in to bowl for India, I didn’t think I am a Muslim. I am an Indian first before anything else,” Pathan said.
Can sport help address in real ways the wrongs of the past and present, and help build a better and more just future for all? Those are big questions with no single answer. What is clear is that finding a way forward will require principled leadership at all levels of society, including by high profile athletes. NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s activism, and the support he has received from other sporting figures are a reminder of the critical roles athletes and other public figures have played over the years. It also calls us to remember why freedom of expression is a fundamental right, and why more dialogue and understanding is needed, including on how that right is responsibly exercised in the world of sport.