On the Internet, everyone’s a celebrity. From snarky Twitter accounts to anonymous blogs, the accessibility of news and production in the modern day has made it easier for individuals to have their voices heard. Due to universal sports fandom and press channels entirely devoted to them, sports stars of today are inevitably publicity magnets. With some having over six million Twitter subscribers (Hi, LeBron), the social media clout of these athletes is undeniable.
Because of their multilateral platforms, these stars can publish their thoughts completely non-related to sports and these thoughts are instantly transmitted to people all around the world. Spheres of influence overlap, and the most trivial of James’s opinions are more widely read than the most recent Ezra Klein article, merely because of this elevated status.
Recently, the sports world has become more and more interwoven with politics. This is partially due to American politics being at the forefront of conversation, but also because of the ease of instant communication. American sports stars use their fame as a platform to advocate for their candidates and to share their opinions about policies that they may (but more likely do not) have any idea about. Some do this effectively, while some merely use their platforms to push uninformed opinions.
For example, Michael Jordan has been a vocal supporter of President Obama and has used his position to raise money for his campaign by throwing fundraisers. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Wes Welker, who likes to tweet back and forth with his teammates about how any candidate would be better than Obama. He tweeted twice in favor of Romney on the night of the debate, both of which made surface-level observations about the candidates’ performances.
While my boy Wes may be trying to exploit his platform to influence his followers, there are some athletes who are using their considerable clout to actually enact social change. Mahmoud Sarsak, a Palestinian soccer player, made headlines this summer for going on a hunger strike for 90 days while he was being held in an Israeli prison without charges for three years. Organizations across the world called for his release, including Amnesty International, and he was finally released in July.
Obviously the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t frequently headline ESPN, but Sarsak effectively used his position to leverage awareness for his cause. His individual stance, albeit shared by 2,000 other hunger strikers, garnered attention from international organizations that did have the power to make a considerable difference in both his personal situation and the large-scale conflict.
His release, though, was not the end of his political crusade. Last month, he was invited to attend the October Clasico match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. But Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier and former prisoner of war, was also invited as an honored guest. Upon hearing of this, Sarsak rejected FC Barcelona’s invitation and publicly denied any involvement with the “normalization” process. Palestinian soccer clubs rose up in support of Sarsak, as did Spanish solidarity organizations. FC Barcelona quickly backtracked, but the damage was already done and Sarsak vocally opposed the event.
The event attempted to bridge differences between Palestinians and Israelis, which is admirable but misguided. Large organizations do not gain any acclaim by marginalizing differences in attempt to smooth over conflict. On the other hand, the impetus behind the actions of Sarsak is certainly laudable because of his history and personal interest with the cause. His deep investment in the cause lends merit to his stance and opinion, whereas the propaganda-fueled position of the club was not as genuine.
The growing convergence of politics and sports is rapidly increasing because of media traction and influence. While this may be used for trivial purposes, some have used their spheres of influence to enact changes in popular opinion and transform social currents. Political statements via sports channels can be an extremely effective way to publicize for a cause. And it’s always nice to see that our beloved sports stars care a little bit about what’s going on outside the world of cheerleaders, beer, and scab referees.