OP-ED: Reflections on Sport and Justice

By Laura Finley
Laura Finley
Laura Finley

As a sports fan, I was ecstatic last week for several reasons. First, my Miami Heat won the NBA championship in an excellent series against the San Antonio Spurs. Second, sport is being used as a vehicle to promote justice in Brazil, as athletes and coaches stand beside the general public in protesting government excesses at the expense of the populace.

First, the Heat. It’s not just that I, like so many, love to see an amazing LeBron James dunk or a clutch Ray Allen three-pointer. Although this is the team America loves to hate—straight up Miami, all tattooed and flamboyant—it is also a team with soul and one that is willing to leverage its reputation for an important cause. As Dave Zirin has noted, the Heat bucked the trend of apolitical athleticism when they donned black hoodies and stood, side-by-side, in solidarity with those who were shocked by the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent racial victim-blaming (i.e, Geraldo Rivera’s comments that Martin’s hoodie was “thug wear,” and thus, by extension, the cause of his victimization).

Then there’s the protests in Brazil. Since July 11, one million people have taken to the streets to protest government expenditures to prepare the country to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. While in recent years as many as 40 million Brazilians have been lifted above absolute poverty, many are one paycheck from returning to that state.  They are protesting hikes in the cost of transportation, and funds diverted from education and social services to the building of sporting facilities.  Brazil is set to spend three times the cost of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa just to build stadiums, and has, for years, been removing people from the homes to pave way for these facilities.  In Favela de Metro, a slum adjacent to the Maracana stadium, hundreds have been forced to live in rubble as their homes were demolished for stadium improvements. It is predicted that an estimated 1.5 million families will be removed from their homes before the 2014 World Cup. This sign sums it up well: “First-world stadiums, Third-world schools and hospitals.”

Importantly, athletes, fans and coaches are standing behind the protestors, much like they did in 1968 in Mexico City and, more recently, in Egypt and Bahrain. Soccer fans known as “ultas” played a key role in the Arab spring movement, while Bahraini athletes A’ala Hubail and his brother Mohamed, along with approximately 200 basketball, volleyball and handball players, were imprisoned and tortured for supporting nonviolent protests.

Currently, Neymar, a Brazilian soccer star, said: "It's sad that it got to a point where we need to go to the streets to demand better conditions. The only way I can represent and defend the country is by playing football, and from now on I'll walk on the field inspired by this movement."

Brazil striker Hulk also supported the protests: "After seeing the people on the streets demanding improvements, it makes me feel like joining them. They are doing the right thing, what they are saying makes sense and we have to hear them. Brazil needs to improve, we all know that."        

Congressman and former Brazil striker Romario, issued a video message of support: "Keep protesting, keep going to the streets, always peacefully. It's the only way congressmen will understand that things need to change. Congratulations. More than ever I'm proud to be Brazilian."

Brazilians living and playing abroad have also issued their support. Chelsea defender David Luiz said he favors peaceful demonstrations in which citizens have the right to express their dissatisfaction in his home country.

Perhaps most important are the comments of Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who said he supported his players who are siding with the protestors, even noting that “it's important that athletes express themselves, because this separation (with the wider world) has ceased to exist."

Many sport leagues, federations and fans want athletes to shut up and play, to keep the politics out of sport. But sport is far from a-political anyways, and I applaud those athletes, coaches, and fans who step up for justice, no matter the issue. 

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Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology in the Miami, FL area,  and is syndicated by PeaceVoice. This commentary was submitted by Tom H. Hastings, Ed.D. Director, PeaceVoice Program, Oregon Peace Institute http://www.peacevoice.info/