Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

From Carson Pickett to Colin Kaepernick, these activist athletes are making a change

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They got game ... the top athletes making waves around the world. Image: Unsplash/Gentrit Sylejmani

Simon Read
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Global sports stars are winning battles for equality and respect on and off the field.
  • Today’s activist athletes are using their success as a platform to push for social change.
  • Sports governing bodies have an important role to play in supporting free expression and inclusivity.

Sometimes it seems as if changing the world has become part of the job description for the world’s top athletes.

Whether fighting poverty, campaigning for equal pay or standing up for human rights, they wield levels of soft power politicians can only envy and scramble to follow their lead.

When today’s sports stars take a stand, it doesn’t take long for public opinion – and sponsors – to line up behind them. But previous generations of activist athletes risked harming their careers or even prison for daring to enter the debate. In 1967, Muhammad Ali was excluded from boxing for refusing military draft in protest against the Vietnam War.

Here are four sports people leading change – and inspiring others – right now:

1. Carson Pickett – the first player with a limb difference to play for the US Women’s soccer team.

Pickett was born without part of her left arm and says she wants to use her success to be an advocate for limb difference. Being selected for an international team has helped, but so did the viral social media posts of her arm bumping 2-year-old fan Joseph Tidd, who was also missing part of his left arm.

An Instagram post of American toddler Joseph Tidd meets athlete Carson Pickett
American toddler Joseph Tidd meets athlete Carson Pickett, the first soccer player with a limb difference to play for the US women’s national team. Image: Colleen Tidd/Instagram.com

“I feel blessed to be in this position for all limb difference people… being able to show that no matter what differences you have, you can do what you want,” said Pickett.

2. Lewis Hamilton – winner of seven Formula One titles and his battle against racism.

The driver has taken a stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On the winner’s podium at the Tuscan Grand Prix Hamilton wore a T-shirt calling for the arrest of police officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, US, in 2020. He did so despite the sport’s governing body forbidding political statements.

“I don’t regret a single moment of it… that was me following my heart”, Hamilton said.

He donated $20 million to create and launch Mission44, a foundation that aims to improve the chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

3. Jake Daniels – the first professional footballer in the UK for more than 30 years to become an openly gay active player. Daniels says it was a “step into the unknown”.

The teenager plays for English Championship club Blackpool. He told Sky Sports: “Since I’ve come out to my family, my club and my team-mates, that period of overthinking everything and the stress it created has gone.”

Before Daniels, Josh Cavallo of Australian team Adelaide United was the only openly gay professional footballer in the entire men’s game.

Daniels added: “There are people out there… that may not feel comfortable revealing their sexuality. I just want to tell them that you don’t have to change who you are, or how you should be, just to fit in.”

4. Megan Rapinoe – the American soccer star who fought for women players to be paid the same as men.

The pay gap came under the spotlight as the US national women’s team won their second consecutive World Cup. During the final, fans made their views clear, with chants supporting equal pay roaring around the stadium.

It took a six-year legal battle, but the sport’s governing body has agreed a deal with the women’s national team to pay them $24 million, and bonuses to match those awarded to male players.

“Knowing that we’re going to leave the game in an exponentially better place than when we found it is everything,” Rapinoe said after winning the case.

These athletes follow a proud tradition: before Megan Rapinoe there was Billy Jean King pushing for equality in tennis. Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take the knee ahead of football matches has been followed by thousands around the world.

As Muhammad Ali found, taking a stand can provoke a backlash, and support – or lack of it – from sporting governing bodies is pivotal.

Mary Harvey, the CEO of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, says they must ensure respect for freedom of expression: “Sports leagues have a difficult but critical role to play in supporting athletes who stand up for human rights… It is time to see athletes who speak up for who they are.”

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