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A Good Game: Sport, Philanthropy & Activism


2nd July 2024

What is the relationship between philanthropy and sport? Are athletes and sports teams primarily recipients of philanthropy, are they potential donors, or are they powerful activists?

2024 is a Big Sports Year. As I write this, the European Championships are in full swing and the countdown to the Paris Olympics is well under way. And that is just the tip of a sporting iceberg comprised of world championships, world cups, test series and so on that extends much further. For some people, I realise, this may feel like torture – but as a lifelong sports fan with a pretty broad range of interests I’m totally down with it. (I’ve long loved rugby, cricket and athletics, and I have recently become obsessed with sport climbing too: will Janja Garnbret cement her GOAT status at this year’s Olympics? Can Toby Roberts or Erin McNeice bring home a medal for Team GB? These are just some of the questions I now bore my family with…)

Image by Alistair Ross, CC BY 2.0

I’m also fascinated by sport as a social and cultural phenomenon, since I think the very fact that sport is essentially arbitrary and constructed makes it a surprisingly powerful lens through which to view society and understand some basic truths about the human condition. I am also (as you may have noticed by now…) quite interested in philanthropy, so I thought I would take a look at some of the ways in which these two phenomena – sport and philanthropy – coincide. In this article we will explore the links between philanthropy and the origins of modern sport; sport as a focus for philanthropy today; the role of sportspeople as philanthropists; and the role of sportspeople as campaigners.


Philanthropy and the origins of sport

Sporting contests have played a part in pretty much every human society. Apart from the simple fact that if you get two or more people together in one place for long enough, eventually the question of who is faster/stronger/better at hopping-then-skipping-then-jumping is bound to come up, sport has had a wide variety of different (and important) functions: from training youngsters the skills of hunting and warfare; to allowing communities to work out tensions without resorting to violence; to providing a source of public spectacle that can keep an otherwise restless populace subdued. And the relationship between philanthropy and sport goes back a long way in this history: we can certainly find evidence of it in the Ancient Roman world, with Cicero complaining in De Officis in 44BCE about wealthy individuals, “squandering their money on public banquets… gladiatorial shows, magnificent games, and wild beast fights… to win the favour of the populace.”

Image created using DallE-3

This is obviously fun to note (and, some would argue, has fairly strong echoes in how some elite donors today view their philanthropy as tool for furthering their own reputation and social standing…), but it probably doesn’t tell us a vast amount about the relationship between philanthropy and modern sport. Much more relevant as a starting point is the 19th century, where we find both the origins of many of the sports we still enjoy today and the origins of many of the ideas and approaches that continue to shape philanthropy. There are at least two key trends in particular that it is worth identifying: the first is that as a result of the process of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation that took place throughout the 18th and 19 centuries, the nature of efforts to address poverty and ill health had changed. As David Owen notes in his book English Philanthropy 1660-1960, “It was [now] out of the question for the philanthropist, however well disposed, to seek out the cases of greatest need and become familiar with them… to translate the person-to-person charity from the village or the small town to an urban slum was an impossible task.

So philanthropy became increasingly organised, and this led to a huge proliferation both in voluntary associations (which had their roots in the charitable relationship between donors, who had wealth, and recipients, who needed help), and also in other forms of organisation such as friendly societies (which were based more on notions of mutual aid and solidarity between those of similar means). In addition to the particular cause they might have been focussed on, these organisations and associations also acted as a vital means of teaching people skills of civic engagement and provided templates for governance that were to prove hugely influential on later attempts to formalise various sports.

The other important 19th century trend we need to take note of is the way in which sport and leisure activity came to be seen increasingly important as a focus of philanthropy (or at least in the UK it did; the US is something of a different story, which we will come to shortly). The emergence of the working class as a defined entity led to efforts to secure new rights and freedoms for employee; in particular a long battle was fought throughout the second half of the 19th century to win workers the right to time off from work on a Saturday. Up until that point, Sunday was the only official non-working day, as people were given time off to attend church. (Although once the churching was done, the reality was that many workers would then start the drinking – often with the result that they were unable to work on Monday. This was so widespread that the phenomenon of bunking off on a Monday became known as “Saint Monday”.)

The obvious fear was that if you gave people time off on Saturday as well, they would just drink even more and the problem would get worse, which is why a crucial part of the campaigns for workers to be given Saturdays off was the promotion of sport as a form of healthy, wholesome “rational recreation”. Unsurprisingly many wealthy philanthropists, particularly those who owned business and thus had a vested interested in keeping their workforce healthy and productive, were very keen on the idea of rational recreation and therefore of sport. This was even more true of those who were part of the temperance movement (which was a good few of them), as sport was seen as a vital weapon in their moral crusade against the evils of alcohol as well. As a result, many factories and other industrial workplaces had their own company football or rugby teams, which became vital parts of the local community.

In some cases, the slightly patrician drive to impose sport from the top eventually collided with the bottom-up organising that the working classes were increasingly able to do as a result of adopting the methods and models of voluntary associations (as we just mentioned). Often the battleground was a clash between those who argued that sport should remain amateur and driven solely by the “Corinthian Spirit” (which was usually those from the upper classes, who had the luxury of not needing to get paid or having to fit sport in around work) and those who thought it was fair for sportspeople to get paid; especially when sports were drawing ever bigger crowds of paying spectators. As R J Morris notes in a chapter on the history of clubs, societies and associations in the 19th and early 20th century, in the case of football, ” The rule of the game by the gentlemen from London was no hegemony. It was an arena of class bargaining in which the working-class clubs of the north who had the top players and attracted the largest crowds had the upper hand.

In the case of rugby, similar debates between amateurism and professionalism led to a schism and the creation of the two distinct sports of rugby union (which remained nominally amateur until 1995) and rugby league (which was professional from the outset). In the case of cricket, meanwhile, there was an uneasy accommodation until 1962, in which those from the upper classes remained amateur “gentlemen” whilst the working classes were allowed to be “players” and get paid. (They weren’t, however, allowed to use the same dressing rooms or entrances at many county cricket grounds – there were different ones for gentlemen and for players, so that they didn’t have to mix apart from on the playing field).

Although the story of many sports in the UK is one of a slow arc towards professionalisation at the top end, in most cases they have retained some links with their amateur roots. One of the distinctive features of UK sport is its rich and ongoing tradition of grassroots activity, which sees huge numbers of people participate every week in a wide range of sports – often through clubs that are kept going by volunteers (and which in many cases have nonprofit status as charities or Community Amateur Sports Clubs). For many years these amateur clubs were an important proving ground for players, some of whom were able to use it as a launchpad for a professional career, but as more and more money has flowed into sport it has become professionalised further down the ladder in the form of academies and youth training programmes – so now if you aren’t already involved in a professional set up in your teens, your chances of ever doing so are increasingly slim.

This is where it is worth noting briefly that in the US the story of sport is, in a number of ways, very different. There, sport was much more professionalised from the outset (and continues to be). Universities and colleges also play a much more important role as the route to professionalism in many sports than they do in the UK. As a result, from what I understand, there isn’t really the same tradition of grassroots sports in the form of clubs (or, at least not for adults), so in the case of many US sports (particularly team sports), unless you end up going professional, you are relatively unlikely to play them after high school or college. Which is not to say that lots of people don’t participate in sports through things like pick-up games of basketball, but there isn’t really an equivalent of something like Sunday League football or club rugby (i.e. amateur participation in sport as adults through organised clubs run by volunteers). (I am entirely happy to be corrected on any of these assumptions by US readers, or course!)


Sport as a focus of philanthropy today

Even in an age in which many sports are becoming increasingly professionalised and commercialised, philanthropic support is still playing an important role. In the UK, as we have seen, there are many sports clubs that take the form of charities or CASCs. This status is predicated on the idea that encouraging and facilitating involvement in sport is a public good, and these organisations are eligible for tax relief, so the government clearly thinks that giving to them should count as philanthropy! That being said, only a fairly small percentage of giving in the UK goes towards sports (2% according to CAF’s latest UKGiving report), so we probably shouldn’t get carried away.

(Image by King, CC BY 2.0)

One interesting development in recent years has been that of philanthropists providing support not necessarily for amateur sports clubs, but for budding elite sportspeople to help them develop and improve. I wouldn’t want to pretend this is an especially widespread phenomenon, but in the UK the philanthropist Barrie Wells has become known for the funding he has given to various athletes who have subsequently gone on to success in the Olympics and other competitions (Jessica Ennis, Keeley Hodgkinson, Katarina Johnson-Thompson and more). In many cases, Wells has stepped in to provide funding when athletes have been unable to secure government funding – which seems to be an increasingly common problem even for already-successful athletes, so he is clearly addressing something of a state failing. It was reported last year that sports bodies in Australia are now looking to attract philanthropic support for their Olympic athletes to address similar challenges with funding shortfalls. So this may well be something we see more of in the future.

Sport is also an area where the lines between business and philanthropy can get very blurred. Ownership and investment in clubs by wealthy individuals is common, but often it doesn’t really stack up if viewed solely as a commercial investment. (As the old joke goes, “What’s the best way to become a millionaire? Start out as a billionaire, and buy a football club…”) There are, of course, ways to make money from owning sports teams, but they often involve taking on vast quantities of debt or selling off assets such as stadia, and in order to make them work you have to be prepared to become deeply unpopular with the club’s fans (like the Glazer family’s ownership of Manchester United or Mike Ashley’s stint as owner of Newcastle United, neither of which – it is fair to say – endeared them to many people…)

If you don’t want to go down that route, however, why would you plough your money into a sports team? One reason is that owning a sports team is often seen as marker of status and legitimacy, so there is a clear reputational benefit to be had. Of course, this is also true of traditional philanthropy – where the desire for social status and legitimacy may be important motivating factors too. But as with philanthropy, whilst we should recognise that desire for social status may play a part, we shouldn’t become cynical in assuming this is the only reason a rich person would want to use their money to support a sports team. In some cases, a more important factor is that the wealthy person themselves is a genuine fan of the sport or the team in question. In basketball, for example, Jerry Buss’s ownership of the LA Lakers in the 1980s and 90s (which took them to Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal-powered success), or Steve Ballmer’s current ownership of the LA Clippers, seem to be pretty clearly driven by a deep love of the sport.

(Image by kip-koech, CC BY 2.0)

There is also the possibility that you might not really care about the particular sport in question, but have a deeper belief in the value of sport and sporting clubs to bring communities together. This seems to have been part of the thinking behind the actors Rob McIlhenney and Ryan Reynolds’s takeover of the struggling (but richly historied) Wrexham football club. There is of course, an argument that this wasn’t an entirely selfless move on McIlhenney and Reynolds’s part, since they have managed to get three seasons of the hugely popular TV series Welcome to Wrexham out of it so far. However, I think it is genuinely true that (for McIlhenney at least, who was the initial driving force behind the project) the reason they picked Wrexham was that their own experiences had taught them about the power of sports clubs as focal points for the community, and that their interest was just as much about this as it was about the results on the pitch. This seems to have been borne out so far as well, as the success and profile they have brought to Wrexham as club has had clear knock on effects in terms of boosting the local economy and restoring civic pride in a town that was pretty down on its luck until quite recently. (It is also worth noting in all of this that according to recent reports, McIlehenney and Reynolds are still “significantly in the red” on their investment in Wrexham, so their owernship makes little sense in purely commercial terms. Especially for Reynolds, who could quite happily be off hawking lucrative gin or mobile phones, on would assume).

Given the economics of sports club ownership and the range of motivations one might have for doing it, then, does it make sense to see it as a form of philanthropy (in at least some cases)? I think there is a good argument that it does, in much the same way as newspaper ownership can be viewed as partly driven by an interest in the public good of journalism, partly by the social status it brings, and partly as a commercial venture (although given the current state of the newspaper industry, whether the last is a sensible rationale remains to be seen…)


Sportspeople as philanthropists

We have seen that many modern sports have their roots in voluntary association and amateurism, and that they benefited at various points from philanthropic support which helped them grow and develop (often leading to professionalisation and, eventually, commercialisation). We have also seen that in some cases, sportspeople or sporting teams continue to be recipients of philanthropy today. However, it is also true that some people become very famous and wealthy through their sporting success, and are therefore in a position to act as philanthropists themselves: either by giving away their own money or by leveraging their fame to fundraise for good causes. What, then, can we say about sportspeople as philanthropists?

Well, the first thing is that (as you might be unsurprised to hear given the historical bent of this website), sportspeople acting as philanthropists is not a new phenomenon. An editorial in the leading UK sport journal Athletic News way back in 1880 argued that “our football players, if only they had the inclination, have the power to enrich many of our needy institutions”, and by 1912 Answers magazine was running an article entitled “philanthropic football” in which it claimed that “if there is one virtue footballers can pride themselves on, it is the virtue of generosity. For a great many years not a season has passed without a present of thousands of pounds from the leading clubs to charity.” Some of this philanthropic spirit was directed outside of football, with many charity matches being held to raise funds to help the victims of disasters. In 1912, for instance, a derby match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal was held to raise money for the Titanic Disaster Relief Fund (only 15 days after the sinking of the ship), and the gate receipts from that year’s FA Charity Shield match (between Blackburn Rovers and Queens Park Rangers) a month later also went to the same fund. (For more on the history of charity and football, I recommend a great paper by Wray Vamplew: “‘It is pleasing to know that football can be devoted to charitable purposes’: British football and charity 1870–1918”).

Charity fundraising games have remained a part of football, although as the game has become ever bigger business in recent years, they are perhaps less prominent than they once were. On the flipside, this commercialisation has resulted in many players becoming multi-millionaires, and some of them are choosing to use that money to launch their own philanthropic endeavours. One of the first examples, and perhaps still the best-known, is David Beckham, whose highly lucrative commercial ventures and personal branding have been accompanied for many years by plenty of high-profile philanthropy. Subsequent football superstars have followed suit – most notably Cristiano Ronaldo, who even many football fans who would otherwise have little good to say about him will grudgingly admit seems to do a lot for charity. The former Chelsea and Spain star Juan Mata also drew attention in 2017 for helping to set up Common Goal, an initiative which encourage other football stars around the world to pledge to give one per cent of their earnings into a pooled fund that can then be distributed to charitable organisations around the world. (The initiative has, at the time of writing, gathered pledges from more than 190 professional football players and managers).

(Image by Oleg Dubyna, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As the Common Goal initiative has demonstrated, philanthropy in football is not merely the preserve of a tiny handful of superstars, but something that many professional players are embracing. This has become even more apparent in the UK’s Premier League as a result of the growing prominence of star players from global south countries (particularly in Africa) who are heavily involved in giving back to the places they came from. Noteworthy examples include Liverpool’s Mo Salah, Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mané (formerly of Liverpool), former Chelsea player Didier Drogba and Galatasary’s Wilfred Zaha (formerly of Crystal Palace) – all of whom have charitable foundations and give significant amounts towards projects in their home countries.

Of course, if you want to talk real money in sport, then you need to be looking to the US. As we have already mentioned, sport has been seen as a business for a lot longer there; and as a result it is easy to trace the history of sportspeople as philanthropists back further. This is most apparent in baseball (which was probably first out of the gate in terms of sports that became highly lucrative), where some of the biggest names in the early history of the game, such as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, were also noted for their philanthropic efforts. (Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Ty Cobb – the “Georgia Peach” – who I think it is fair to say is generally agreed to have been Not Very Nice, was actually remarkably generous and established an educational foundation after he retired from baseball that is still going today). More recently other team sports like basketball and American Football have become highly lucrative too, and big name stars like Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce in football, or LeBron James in basketball have set up foundations and are getting a lot of profile for their charitable efforts. The same is true in individual sports that have become big money spinners, such as tennis or golf, where many well known players such as Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Andre Agassi and (to throw in at least one non-American) Roger Federer are heavily involved in various causes through their charitable foundations.

Why, then, do all these high-earning sportspeople get involved in philanthropy? Well, let’s address the elephant in the room first, which is that there is clearly an element of PR and marketing involved in it. Having a foundation, being a UN Goodwill Ambassador, giving conspicuously to suitable causes, and so on, are increasingly seen as important parts of a sportsperson’s brand. There is an expectation that once you reach a certain level of success you add these trappings, and there are plenty of advisors to help you do that in the most brand-beneficial way possible. This is why it should be no surprise that alongside the philanthropy of individual sports starts, many sports leagues also have their own corporate foundations (e.g. The NFL Foundation, the NBA Foundation, the Football Foundation etc), which offer a means for an even wider base of players to get involved and thus spread the reputational benefits of philanthropy even further.

The fact that being seen to engage in philanthropy might help an athlete’s brand doesn’t invalidate it, of course. A desire to harness the “good glow” of charity (as the academic Jon Dean explains it) is a recurrent theme across pretty much all philanthropy; and whilst some might question the legitimacy of giving if it is driven solely by PR concerns, others would argue that if the money is demonstrably doing good then we shouldn’t get too hung up on the underlying motivations. Besides, in most cases, even where PR is a factor it is not the only thing that leads sportspeople to engage in philanthropy. In many cases, their own experience and life story plays an important role too. Sport has long been a domain in which individuals from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds can find success, through virtue of their talent and hard work, and can end up far wealthier than they might have ever imagined. When they do, often these individuals feel a strong urge to give back – in recognition of the help and support they themselves may have had throughout their lives that got them to where they are, and in acknowledgment that their lives might have turned out very differently without that support. As we have already seen, there are many footballers in the Premier League – including a growing number from African countries – for whom this is the case. This may be one of the reasons that sportspeoples’ philanthropy often seems, in broad terms, to be viewed more favourably than that of other wealthy people: because there is a sense of authenticity that comes from being able to point to your own experience of poverty or disadvantage, and the sense of responsibility to “remember where you came from”. Another related reason that people might feel more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to sporting philanthropists is that in some ways it is easier to understand how they have made their money. Getting rich by being really good at basketball or tennis makes a lot more sense to most of us (and may therefore seem more legitimate) than getting rich by being really good at commodities trading or convertible bond arbitrage.

(Image by VisitCentralFL, CC BY 2.0)

The flipside of people being more aware of how sportspeople have made their money is that they are also more likely to know about it if an individual subsequently gets embroiled in scandal or controversy, so there is definitely an element of risk for recipient organisations when it comes to accepting money from sporting philanthropists. The paradigm example of this is, of course, the cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose enormous success in the Tour de France and other competitions was matched by a high-profile commitment to philanthropy through his personal foundation, which reflected his own compelling personal tale of battling and overcoming cancer. When it was revealed that Armstrong had been using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career, his reputation was shredded and many organisations that had aligned themselves with him and his “LiveStrong” campaign hastily distanced themselves. The Lance Armstrong Foundation itself eventually rebranded as the LiveStrong Foundation and continues to this day, although with a much lower profile and a different approach that is not focussed on direct service provision. Other sporting philanthropists who have suffered reputational damage – such as the baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, or the disgraced-but-now-rehabilitated golfer Tiger Woods – have caused similar (albeit less dramatic) problems for nonprofits and other organisations they are involved with.

In terms of what motivates sportspeoples’ philanthropy, there may also be another sense in which it is driven partly by self-interest. Most sporting careers are, by their nature, fairly short because the window for being able to perform at the required physical level is relatively narrow. (I, for instance, have had to reluctantly accept that at 42, my chances of a call up to the Welsh rugby team are now looking pretty slim. Especially since I haven’t played competitive rugby for 20 years…) Which means there is a lot of time after your career as a sportsperson that needs to be filled. For those in less lucrative sports, often this means starting an entirely new career in order to earn money, or perhaps going into coaching of some kind. But those at the top of major sports who make really big money, and thus don’t really need to worry about earning a wage, are going to be faced with a different challenge: how to find things to do that give them a sense of purpose. For these individuals, philanthropy can play an important role in giving their post-sporting career lives structure and meaning, so there is a definite sense of personal reward and “enlightened self-interest. (One that I would assume most of us can get on board with?) (BTW If you want more on what motivates professional athletes to give, I recommend a great 2012 paper by Babiak, Mills, Tainsky and Juravich which explores the question in the US context).

In addition to understanding why sportspeople might give, do we have any idea what they might give to? i.e. Do we know what kinds of causes they tend to support? The short answer, as with a lot of things about philanthropy, is probably “no” at any sort of rigorous quantitative level. However, we can definitely discern a few broad trends from the various examples of sports philanthropy that we do have. There is often, for instance, a focus on children and young people. Sometimes this is tied in with sports, in terms of encouraging participation or promoting the sport in question at the grassroots level; but in other cases it is more about education or healthcare.

This should not be surprising: most sportspeople will remember their own childhood participation in sports, they will more than likely come into contact with children among their fans all the time, and they may well have children of their own (who are likely to be relatively young, given that sports people themselves, as previously discussed, tend to be quite young). So issues affecting children and young people will be obvious to them, and are likely to connect with them on some level. It is also true that causes like education and child healthcare are fairly uncontroversial, so if PR and brand management is playing a part in the thinking of the sportsperson or those advising them, these are likely to see like safe bets. (Which, to my mind, is the same reason that a lot of corporate philanthropy ends up focussing on education and issues affecting children too).

Not all sports philanthropy is quite so uncontroversial, however. Some stars have used their position and profile to support much more challenging causes; and at times have paid a heavy price for doing so. In the final section, then, let’s take a look at the role of sportspeople as activists and campaigners.


Sportspeople as activists

In a commencement speech made at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2017, the sports sociologist Harry Edwards outlined four “waves” of activism by athletes across the 20th and 21st centuries. His remarks are focussed particularly on the experience of Black athletes in the US and their involvement in activism on issues of racial justice, but his analysis applies more broadly too. As Edwards explains it, the first wave of activism (between 1900 and 1945) centred on Black athletes establishing the ”right to be here” through their participation. The second wave (1946 through to the early 1960s) then involved Black athletes like the baseball player Jackie Robinson and the tennis star Althea Gibson using their success and fame to break down race and class barriers within their sports. The third wave (from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s) saw the focus shift from athletes campaigning within sport to speaking out on issues in wider society. This is where we find some of the most famous examples that still come to mind when thinking of sportspeople as activists: such as Billie Jean King’s “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs in 1973, Muhammad Ali losing his boxing license in 1967 for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, or the sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos donning black gloves and giving a Black Power salute on the winners podium for the 200 metres at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. The fourth wave (which we are still in now), has come with the recent resurgence in advocacy by people like the NFL quarterback Colin Kapaernick, former US women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, US shot putter Raven Saunders, and even entire teams and leagues (most notably the WNBA women’s basketball league in the US).

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that there is a noticeable gap between the third and fourth of the waves outlined above. This reflects the fact that, as Edwards and others have argued, advocacy by sportspeople declined significantly in the 1980s and 1990s, as sports became increasingly commercialized and athletes were keen to position themselves as brands that could appeal to everyone. In a 2021 article on “Charity, social justice and sporting celebrity foundations”, Catherine Palmer explains the gap thus:

“At the same time that activism purportedly went quiet, we saw the emergence of sporting celebrities. As Andrews and Jackson (2001), Andrews (2012)) and Smart (2005) have suggested, these were politically neutral ‘stars’ who, despite being members of oppressed, minority and marginalised communities, chose not to use their celebrity platform to bring public attention to social injustices both inside and outside of sport. As Cunningham, Dixon et al note, this period of the apolitical athlete in the United States in particular was ‘most notably associated with O.J. Simpson in the 1970s, and which continued in the 1980s and 1990s with Michael Jordan, both of whom were said to “transcend” race and avoided politics to become “America’s favorite athlete”‘

According to this analysis, sports stars like OJ Simpson and Michael Jordan actively sought to distance themselves from speaking out on issues such as race, on the basis that this might harm their own positions within their sports and harm their ability to reach the widest fanbase possible. The evidence suggests that the former fear, at least, was not unfounded, since other athletes had found that genuine activism often comes at a cost. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, for instance, found that their protest at the Mexico City Olympics initially led to them being ostracized by the US athletics establishment; while Muhammad Ali arguably lost some of the most potentially valuable years of his boxing career due to the loss of his license. Even today, after taking the knee during the US national anthem before NFLs game in 2016 and helping to spark a much wider discussion on racial injustice in the US and beyond, Colin Kaepernick found himself out of a job the following season and his subsequent career stalled (which many observers attributed to his activism).

(Image by JJonahJackalope, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Some sporting authorities may take a dim view of activism, but what about sports fans? Do they admire athletes that take a stand on issues, or do they see it as self-righteous posturing that has no place in sport? The evidence here is somewhat mixed. A 2022 paper by Brown et al, for instance found that whilst activism per se did not affect fan’s perception of an athlete in an experiment, the response differed according to whether the activism was viewed as “safe” or “risky”, with the latter being more divisive and more likely to lead to having a negative view of the athlete. The same study and others (e.g. this one looking at fan perception of athlete activism in Germany) have also found that whether or not you agree with an athlete on a given issue is a big factor in whether you view them positively for engaging in activism. Which isn’t really surprising, as even if we might all like to think that we would be objective enough to applaud the integrity of an athlete campaigning on an issue we don’t happen to agree with, the reality is that this isn’t really how human nature works.

One might suppose that our opinion of an athlete’s activism is partly to do with how much “effort” we think they are making, and that we might be more willing to give credit to someone taking an activist stance we don’t agree with if they are doing it in a way that suggests genuine commitment (e.g. boycotting games or engaging in protest in the knowledge that this will come at a financial cost), rather than in a way we consider to be “slacktivism” (e.g. posting about it on social media). However, the study by Brown et al tested this hypothesis and found that that there didn’t appear to be a significant relationship between activism being “high” or “low” effort and how we view it. (Although there is still probably more to be said about this, as this is only a finding from one quite narrow experimental setting). There may also be a risk of criticism in cases where athletes who have spoken out on issues are perceived as having “given in” too easily: at the football World Cup in Qatar, for instance, the decision by nine European countries competing at the tournament to backtrack on a commitment to wear the OneLove armband in support of LGBTQ+ rights (and in protest at the repression of people from these communities in Qatar), in the face of threats from football’s governing body FIFA to impose on-field sanctions such as yellow cards, was met with fierce criticism from many who felt that it exposed professed support for LGBTQ+ rights as merely empty rhetoric.

For those athletes who are willing to accept the short-term risk of criticism from fans or censure by their sport’s governing bodies, there may be longer-term rewards. If you are seen to have acted with integrity and stuck to your principles, then there is a good chance you will end up on the right side of history, and even those who criticised or punished your activism at the time will come to celebrate it; as the International Olympic Committee have come to do with Tommy Smith and John Carlos, who they forced the US team to send home from the 1968 games, but who are now lauded as heroes in various official IOC publications. Carlos himself is clear that those sportspeople who use their platform to speak out are the ones that will end up with the most lasting legacies, telling the Guardian in 2012:

“That’s the difference between Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Muhammad Ali will never die. He used his skills to say something about the social ills of society. Of course, he was an excellent boxer, but he got up and spoke on the issues. And because he spoke on the issues, he’ll never die. There will be someone else at some time who will do what Jordan could do. And then his name will just be pushed down in the mud. But they’ll still be talking about Ali.”

Whether Carlos is right or not, there are plenty of sportspeople who continue to reject the idea that sports and politics don’t mix, and use their platform to raise awareness and speak out on issues – even when that comes at a personal cost to their career or their livelihood. In addition to the high-profile examples from the US we have already talked about, there are many other sportspeople around the world who are becoming known for taking a stand: such as footballer Marcus Rashford, who has become a high-profile campaigner on food poverty and childhood literacy. Or former Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas, who came out as HIV positive in 2019 and has campaigned strongly on removing the stigma still associated with the condition, as well as on wider LGBTQ+ issues. There is also former Australia Rugby captain David Pocock, who has long been a powerful advocate for environment and climate issues, including getting arrested for chaining himself to mining machinery as part of a protest in 2014. (Since retiring in 2020, Pocock has continued to campaign, and was elected as an independent to the Australian Senate in 2022, where he acts as a strong voice on climate issues). Another Australian sporting captain – cricket’s Pat Cummins – has also become a well-known campaigner on climate issues, setting up a Cricket for Climate Foundation which aims to make Australian cricket climate neutral.

(Image by, CC BY 2.0)

One particularly fascinating development may be that speaking out publicly or campaigning on issues is no longer the preserve of individuals at the top of their chosen sport. Marcus Rashford demonstrated this to some extent, as although he was already known as a talented young footballer, it was his skill in using social media to raise awareness around food poverty and his ability to engage with politicians (some of whom were either critical or patronising towards him) with dignity and intelligence that brough him to the attention of a much wider public audience. We may well see other young athletes in the early stages of their career use their positions in similar ways: particularly when it comes to speaking out on climate issues – which are already front of mind for many young people, but are likely to be felt even more keenly by those whose sporting involvement makes them particularly aware of the impact of extreme weather and long term climate change. To take just one example, the 18 year old European Under 20 cross-country running champion Innes FitzGerald, who hails from Devon in the UK, has spoken out about her unwillingness to use long haul travel to take part in competitions. When she competed in the 2022 European cross-country championships in Italy, FitzGerald took a 20-hour coach and a train; and in 2023 she was unable to compete in the World Championships because she was unwilling to compromise on her principles in order to fly to Australia. Given the international nature of many sports, it will be interesting to see what sort impact this sort of climate consciousness may have in coming years.


So What Now?

As we have seen, sport has a long and multifaceted relationship with philanthropy. The origin of many sports in voluntary association and amateurism means that philanthropy has often played an important role in helping them to develop and setting them on the path to professionalisation. And even today, in sports that may not be as commercially successful, individual athletes and teams may still rely on philanthropic funding for their survival and success. Conversely, some sports enable people to achieve significant fame and fortune, which then brings with it the question of a social responsibility to give back through philanthropy.

At a time when there are many major environmental and social challenges facing the world, athletes may feel compelled to use their profile and platform to speak out on social and environmental issues as well. But at the same time, in an increasingly polarised atmosphere of public debate, many of these issues are seen as ‘divisive’ or ‘political’ and the cost of taking a stand may be high. Given that the Olympic Games has, throughout history, been an arena in which the idea that “sport and politics don’t mix” has been tested, it will be interesting to see whether any athletes at this year’s games in Paris use the opportunity to engage in activism. And if they do, what the reaction will be.

Learn from our past to better understand our future.

Philanthropy has a long and varied history. We’ve created bite-size chapters that you can jump in and out of to better understand philanthropy.