The election is over, so what is the activist athlete to do? So much of the energy of the last year was poured into the political season, with players projecting that one-word message to “vote” on league-produced T-shirts, gear, and face masks. Yet, before it gets thrown down into a swoosh-adorned memory hole, we should remember that these athletes were not inspired to let their political flag fly because of the candidacy of Joe Biden. It was the movements in the streets, namely the fight for police accountability in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, that pushed players to act. That their protests and even their strikes were channeled and diverted into the 2020 elections should not erase the initial thirst for justice. There is much more work to do around this front in the aftermath of the election, so hopefully athletes will continue to amplify that cause.
There is another example, though, across the pond about just what an athlete can do in this time of sickness and decay. Marcus Rashford, at 23 one of the greatest soccer players in the world, is using his platform to address the outbreak of youth hunger in the United Kingdom as a result of the Covid economic crisis.
What is so important about Rashford’s example is that his quest started with efforts at charity. The Manchester United star himself had experienced hunger as a child and undertook titanic efforts to raise money for the food-deprived in Manchester. Working with his mother, Melanie, Rashford started with a goal to reach 400,000 local children, but his efforts were so successful he ended up feeding 4 million. Inspired by the outpouring of solidarity for his efforts, his mission transformed from philanthropy to activism. First, he started a petition to end child food poverty that attracted more than a million signatures. It was a petition aimed at the Conservative government with solid demands to “expand access to free school meals, provide meals and activities during holidays to prevent hunger and expand the healthy start scheme to provide more support to young mothers on benefits.” He then further leveraged both social media and old media to gain even more publicity for his efforts.
Now, in the aftermath of his campaigning, Rashford has not once but twice led successful pressure campaigns against Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make sure that children do not starve during the pandemic. As a result of the movement inspired by Rashford’s efforts, this weekend it was announced that children would have access to free meals during school holidays. This was a major about-face on the part of Boris Johnson, who had long pledged that food for the hungry would not be on his government’s agenda. But Johnson was shamed into switching his position and even phoned Rashford personally to tell him the news. This marked the second turnaround on child hunger that Rashford had successfully agitated for in the past year. Five months ago, this movement raised hell for a £15-a-week food voucher for the summer months when school was out and won that as well.
As Rashford said,
There is still so much more to do, and my immediate concern is the approximate 1.7 million children who miss out on free school meals, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough. But the intent the government have shown today is nothing but positive, and they should be recognised for that.
He then pledged to “fight for the rest of my life” to end child hunger throughout the UK.
Rashford also tweeted,
To the campaigners, charity workers, volunteers, teachers, care workers, key workers, that have fought for this level of progress for years, thank you. This is YOUR victory. Never underestimate the role you have all played. I’m just honoured to be on this journey with you.
That phrase “there is still so much more to do” should send a shiver of fear up Boris Johnson’s spine. Given his star power, his commitment, and his victories, Rashford has become a power player in the UK and a source of hope. In a country ravaged by Brexit, Conservative rule, and the decimation of the Labor Party. he has become a one-person sustainer of a social safety net that otherwise would not exist.
In the United States, there is a pressing need for someone to take the baton from Rashford and take ownership of this cause. A study by Columbia University last month revealed that 8 million people in the United States have entered the ranks of poverty since Covid-19. Among Black and Latino families, the numbers are through the roof. The unemployment rate of blacks is double that of white workers and the poverty rate at 25 percent. Hunger stalks these families. According to the organization Feeding America, the number of people who are food insecure in 2020 could rise to more than 50 million, including 17 million children. There is certainly no plan coming from the Trump administration about this and nothing from the incoming Biden-Harris duo about addressing this problem immediately.
It feels sadly desperate to need professional athletes in the United States to raise awareness about this reality, but it is also very needed. Many star athletes—like Rashford—began their own lives gripped by hunger. NBA Finals Star Jimmy Butler, for a time growing up, even lived without shelter. For them to shine a light on this issue—to in effect be our Marcus Rashford—would be a heroic act. Yes, it is an unfair burden to ask any athlete to fill a gap where politicians have failed. But this is where we are. Athletes are embracing their political influence and we need both to direct them to where they can have the most impact and to make sure that this foray into politics doesn’t end with the election of Biden and Harris.
The greatest lesson they can learn from Rashford is that it is not enough to be a philanthropist. Yes, more people will love you, but unless we make demands of those in power to fill the gap and provide a social safety net in a country hollowed out by income inequality and government negligence, we will never change a system that fails the poor on a daily, numbing basis. Marcus Rashford—or his US equivalent—is not going to save us. But if this generation of athletes can demonstrate that we need activists and organizers, not philanthropists, that would be a vital step away from the nihilism of the Trump years and toward the kind of battle we will need to wage to ensure the very survival of communities on the brink.