Little Black Book: If All Else Fails, Send in the Jocks

Matt Readman, CSO at Dark Horses, on the long-debated argument whether politics has a place within sports

You might be scratching your head as to how Gary Lineker, an ex-footballer and sports presenter, has managed to dominate the political pages for four days in a row.

More surprising perhaps is that in one tweet Lineker has inflicted more damage on this government policy than the entire opposition benches combined.

Although ‘impartiality’ was the word of the week – and I’m sure we all now know BBC employee guidelines better than we ever imagined – Lineker’s attack stung so badly not because he is a company man but because he is a football man.

Over the last decade I’d argue that no other area of culture has created a bigger political impact on our society than sport. Whether it’s Colin Kapaernick and Lebron James in the US or Marcus Rashford this side of the Atlantic, sport is forcing conversations where others have failed.

It’s not just today’s modern influencers either. The Match of the Day team – football’s very own Dad’s Army – has proved it has the power to get people to listen. Who would have thought Gary, Alan and Ian would be the talk of every table and tabloid on Sunday?

Sport has of course always had its activists. But in comparison to music and film it has been in the bronze medal position. The social change of the 60s for example feels unthinkable without its accompanying booming soundtrack. Similarly anti-war movements in America have been heavily influenced by cinema over the years.

Things have changed however. The role music can have on society has been diluted by data, with the personalisation of streaming services reducing its collective impact. Similarly mainstream movie studios now need to focus on making sequels and establishing franchises more than challenging governments.

Sport on the other hand goes from strength-to-strength in creating moments that can bring us together and capture our attention. Even the comfortingly familiar Match of the Day pulls in two million viewers week after week. It’s this that means that whilst other areas of culture have fragmented, sport holds our collective attention intact.

Perhaps the most visual representation of this power shift was Fatboy Slim playing a gig in front of a huge backdrop of Lineker’s face. Forget Che Guevara and Barack Obama – good old Gary is the political icon these days.

There are reasons why sport is getting more politically vocal. The first is that fans have started to change their opinion about the political involvement of their favourite stars. As fans get to know characters and their personalities better, they’re more sympathetic and encouraging of their causes. Throughout history athlete activists were almost always treated as pariahs by fans of the day – not so now. Research in the US suggests three in four are comfortable with political statements from sports stars.

The biggest change however has been brands. In the past an athlete activist or a sporting protest would almost always be met with financial sacrifice. Sponsors would distance themselves, fines would be issued, bans not uncommon. Today an athlete can earn more in endorsement deals with strong political beliefs. I’m not saying this is why athletes do it, but it sure as hell helps to know the cheques will keep coming.

The greatest proof that sport is in a golden age of influence is how much those in power try to keep sport and politics apart. They are quick to attack athletes for veering out of their lane. Whether it’s Lee Anderson tweeting that Lineker should ‘stick to reading out the football results’, or Penny Mordaunt’s clumsy “left-wing striker” analogy, the pattern is clear. It was the same when Natalie Elphicke told Marcus Rashford to stop ‘playing politics’ or Laura Ingraham in the US told Lebron James to “shut up and dribble”.

Some people still see sportspeople as one dimensional, unopinionated, sometimes even uneducated. There is a whiff of snobbery from the BBC and its political journalists talking about Gary Lineker – he just does the football. But Lineker is representative of many modern sports stars. He is popular, he is political and he wields great power. Not only does he have close to 10m followers on social media but he controls the UK’s most listened to political podcast. Like many other sportspeople, he can make and win arguments others can’t.

In this era brands need to pick a lane. The ‘sport and politics don’t mix’ argument increasingly comes from politicians and sporting bodies who want to retain the status quo. There is a more progressive side to modern sport which is not just political but effective. As a brand, you don’t have to be political but you can’t afford to be naive either. The ‘sport is just sport’ stance won’t hold up anymore.

Matt Readman, CSO at Dark Horses,