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Opinion: More social activism in European soccer

The “take a knee” protest in American football proved that social activism is alive and well — and can’t be stopped. DW’s Davis VanOpdorp only wishes that was the case in European soccer.The “take a knee” protest, where American football players in the National Football League (NFL) kneel during the national anthem, had all the polarizing aspects a social activism movement should have.

Firstly, the protest had a unifying cause: police brutality against African Americans in the United States. According to statistics website ProFootballLogic, 68 percent of players in the NFL are black. But perhaps more importantly, the “take a knee” protest had the perfect antagonist: the president of the United States, Donald Trump. One speech calling the protestors “sons of bitches” and a few bombastic tweets from the former reality television star was enough to escalate the protest movement to unprecedented heights.

The defiance of these American football players in the face of criticism — which came not only from Trump but many others, including some inside the NFL — was a huge victory for social activism in sports. Colin Kaepernick, the player who started a protest in 2016, may no longer get a job in the NFL after being released by the San Francisco 49ers earlier this year, but he will have a place in history as someone who risked his professional sports career to stand up for something he believed in.

If only that were the case in soccer…

No room for activism

With the “take a knee” protest, Kaepernick became a social activist comparable to Mohammad Ali, who risked his boxing career and imprisonment when he refused to enlist during the Vietnam War. European soccer does not have that, and considering the platform these superstars have, that is a real disappointment.

While LeBron James is using his widely followed social media accounts to address social issues, Cristiano Ronaldo is sharing pictures of himself shirtless or advertising his new boots. It’s not like there aren’t social issues to talk about in Europe. There is a migrant crisis, Neo-Nazism, widespread racism and, in some European countries, human rights violations.

To be fair, the sport does restrict the platform with which players can raise social issues. FIFA prohibits political or religious symbols as part of uniforms during competitions, and there is a lot of gray area as to what symbols fall into that category. But there are still ways players can show defiance against things like racist or Neo-Nazi fans or stadiums built by modern slaves.

There are also certainly players who have taken a stand against something they believe in. James McClean, a player who was born the Northern Ireland city of Derry, the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre, refuses to wear the Remembrance Day poppy on his jersey, and dark-skinned players like Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli have walked off the field during football matches in response to racist chants, which led to new sanctions in the sport. But when it comes to Europe’s elite soccer stars, most of them limit their stances on social issues to post-game interviews rather than defiant demonstrations.

Activism is limited to the corporate level in European soccer, which makes it appear artificial. Hertha Berlin’s “take a knee” protest before a Bundesliga game this year was weird and out of place. UEFA’s “Say No to Racism” commercials are so corporate that they look more like an advertising campaign than public service announcements.

Perhaps the platform for a social activist movement like the “take a knee” protest just isn’t there in soccer. National hymns are only played during international matches, during which players are more grateful to represent their countries than prone to protest a social issue happening in them. Players in Europe also come from many different backgrounds, making it less likely for them to come together on a social issue. The only injustices players could probably unite behind are those happening in FIFA itself, and it’s never easy protesting against your employer.

Nonetheless, soccer’s superstars should be questioning the way the world works. As the “take a knee” protest in the United States has shown, social activism in sports can be very powerful.

Topics: European soccer

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