Athletes and Social Activism: Being a Good Person is more important than Being a Good Player

31-year-old German professional Soccer player Mesut Özil, has been described during his successful career as being the “Federer of Football, “assist king,” and “a genius with the ball.” He is a World Cup winner with Germany, and has played for some of the most prestigious clubs in the world, including Real Madrid and Arsenal. His coach at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho, once said, “Özil is unique. There is no copy of him, not even a bad copy.” Former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, stated: “Mesut Özil is the dangerous one – he’s the one we need to keep the closest eye on.”

For the last 6 seasons Özil has played for Arsenal, but despite starting the first 10 Premier League games under Arsenal’s current club manager, Mikel Arteta, Özil has not played a minute since March 7. He has not even been named to a matchday squad since June 25. Last week, Arsenal submitted their 25-man squad for their Premier league match and it was made official that they were leaving out Özil, who also happens to be one of English football’s highest-paid players. What that means is that while he remains at the club, fit to play, available to train, and paid by the club, he will not play in a match.

Arsenal’s team manager Arteta has insisted that leaving Özil out was solely based on “footballing” reasons, however, Özil was a regular starter with Arsenal before the Covid-19 break. Per Mertesacker (Arsenal defender, 2011-18 and now a coach at the club’s academy) has said publicly that Özil has been training well. His teammates have said that he is one of their best players, and cannot understand why he was left off the s match squad. So, why is Özil left out of the Arsenal squad?

Some Arsenal fans have pointed to his comments in December 2019 about the mistreatment of Uighur Muslims in China and suggest a link to his current exile. In 2018, a BBC investigation revealed evidence that about a million people – mostly from China’s Muslim Uighur community – had been detained without trial in more than 85 high-security prison camps where they were interrogated and beaten because of their religion. On December 2019, Özil, who is Muslim, released a social media post calling Uighurs “warriors who resist persecution” and criticizing both, China, and the silence of other Muslims in response to the abuse. Arsenal distanced themselves from Özil’s comments, saying the club is “always apolitical as an organization.”

After his post, Özil was removed from China’s version of the Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 video game, and the club’s next game after the comments against Manchester City was removed from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV’s schedule. Clearly, Özil’s comments had resulted in a significant economic loss to his club who relies heavily on the Chinese market for revenue. Perhaps being left out of the Arsenal squad is not solely for footballing reasons after all.

Özil’s career as a player for the German national team also ended in controversy, he quit international football in 2018 citing the “racism and disrespect” he has faced in Germany over his Turkish roots. Making direct reference to Reinhard Grindel, president of the DFB (German Football Federation), Özil added: “[p]eople with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world that has players from dual heritage families. Attitudes like theirs simply do not reflect the players they supposedly represent. In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

Özil’s story is reminiscent of that of Colin Kaepernick and the protests by some American athletes against police brutality and racism by kneeling on one knee during the National Anthem. The protests began in the National Football League (NFL) after San Francisco 40ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem, before his team’s preseason games of 2016. During a post-game interview on August 26, 2016, Kaepernick stated, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” adding that he would continue to protest during the anthem until he felt like “[the United States flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent.” Kaepernick was essentially fired by the San Francisco 49ers and blackballed by the NFL. He has not been able to play in the league since the 2016 season.

Modern athletes raising their voice to injustice, although infrequent, is not something new. In fact, in 2012, the Miami Heat posed in hoodies for a widely circulated photograph meant to protest the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Two years later, athlete activism accelerated when the Los Angeles Clippers demonstrated against their team owner, Donald Sterling, for making racist comments. NBA stars wore T-shirts that said “I Can’t Breathe” to protest the killing of Eric Garner’s by police in New York. And five St. Louis Rams players raised their hands in “don’t shoot” poses to bring attention to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Most recently, on August 26, 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take to the court for their NBA playoff game. In this case, however, the players didn’t just voice their concerns, the players’ protest marked a significant shift in the direction of activism on the part of the athletes.
By acting in concert –and all of them refusing to play– these athletes were, in effect, going on strike, and they showed the world just how much economic leverage they could wield.

In recent years, the prevailing media narrative about athletes who have routinely used their “platforms” to “raise awareness” or “bring attention” to a social issue has been positive. However, many argue that athletes are professionals who should focus on doing “their job” and not get involved in social activism. Furthermore, they argue that some of their actions – such as taking a knee during the National Anthem – is disrespectful and rarely does it lead to the kind of structural changes their actions demand.

The question for all of us is whether we prefer unquestioning athletes who play a game for our entertainment like robots, or individuals with a social conscience using their platform to raise awareness about injustices, and trying to have a positive impact on society. If we prefer the latter, then we cannot cover for injustice or else we become accomplices of the bad actors. Coach Mikel Arteta’s covering for his bosses by citing footballing reasons for leaving Özil out of the Arsenal’s squad, when he was clearly left out because of his social activism, is cowardly and wrong.