By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
Since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, there has been an ongoing discussion on the role of sports in politics and politics in sports. Despite attempts to keep the two separate, sports and politics have often been intertwined in various ways, with sport’s unique position to bring about unity and expression on the global stage. Throughout history, sport has been a platform to advance political causes on all sides, from imposing religious ideology and national supremacy to becoming a national unifier and expression of our diverse culture. Sport has elevated the women’s rights movement and the labor movement; it helped to confront racism and even gone so far as to advanced diplomacy. This has and always will be the reality of sports as it is so engrained into our culture, that no matter how hard anybody tries, it will always be political in some way.
Often, people who argue that political views should not expressed in sports only use that as a response to an expression of those views that they do not support or agree with. Athletes who speak out are often vilified and punished, many of whom lose their careers as a result if they express a political opinion if it is not widely supported. A most recent example of this is Colin Kaepernick who led a peaceful protest the disproportionate levels of excessive police brutality against black people. Simply by kneeling during the national anthem, many comments were that as an athlete he should “stick to sports” rather than express any kind of human opinion about the things that affect him and his community personally. As a result, he was let go from his team and hasn’t played professional football since.
Currently, the UEFA Euro Cup is taking place in which the national soccer teams from countries all over Europe are currently in a tournament for the Euro Cup title. Manuel Neuer, a goalkeeper for the German national team has been wearing a rainbow armband during his matches to show his support for the LGBTQIA+ community, specifically on supporting LGBTQIA+ athletes for whom sports has been traditionally an unwelcome and unsafe space for. This prompted an investigation from the UEFA into whether it would be deemed as a “political symbol” for which such “political demonstrations” are prohibited. However, UEFA dropped the investigation and declared that the rainbow armband represents a team symbol for diversity and “thus, for a good cause.” In a statement, Deutsche Fußball Bund press officer, Jens Grittner stated,
“The regulations state that the armband officially provided by UEFA must be worn. June is also a year of ‘Pride’ in sport to stand up for more diversity. This year the DFB is participating with various campaigns. Manuel Neuer has been wearing the rainbow armband since the friendly against Latvia on June 7 as a symbol and clear commitment of the entire team to diversity, openness and tolerance and against hatred and exclusion. The message is: we are colourful! “
Despite the positive result, many people were confused as to why the investigation was initiated in the first place. Especially with the timing regarding the developing situation with anti-LGBTQIA+ discrimination in Hungary.
The UEFA has long been criticized for allowing countries with poor human rights records, especially LGBTQIA+ human rights, to host major UEFA tournaments and for hosting many of the Euro Cup matches in Hungary, which has been introducing and passing several anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation, making criminal to provide any kind of LGBT content or advertising to young people. There have also been reported incidences of anti-LGBT discrimination in Budapest’s Puskas Arena during the two Euro Cup matches they hosted, including the display of anti-LGBT banners being displayed during the games. As a result, there are increased calls for UEFA to move the matches out of Hungary to other stadiums in Europe and to act against the anti-LGBT discrimination that is currently present in football and especially regarding the situation in Hungary. In response to the incidents in Hungary, the city council in Munich requested to light their Allianz Arena in rainbow colors for Germany’s match against Hungary to show support for the LGBTQIA+ community but was swiftly denied by the UEFA as a “political As a result, a situation is quickly escalating as activists are calling for the UEFA to reconsider while Hungarian fans use the matches to express their homophobia and transphobia.
Over 20 LGBTQIA+ community groups in Europe delivered a signed letter to UEFA to remind them of their role to “ensure actions of inclusion and solidarity are not prevented, and that action on homophobia and LGBTIQ exclusion matches the words of campaigns and pledges.” The letter challenges the decision to block Munich’s request to light the arena in rainbow and that “supportive messages for oppressed minority communities should not be equated to political decisions that repress LGBTQIA+ in Hungary.” It also urges UEFA to walk the walk on its own “equal game” campaign that is used to to ““show how the game can be enriched by greater diversity; and explain the European football family’s role to make the sport open and accessible to all”. The letter concluded with
“We have noted the UEFA commitment to your own Equal Game campaign; this is an opportunity to put that campaign into practice. We urge UEFA to do more, to work with partners, such as the Fare network and those of us among this grouping with an international remit, to ensure that actions of inclusion and solidarity are not prevented, and that action on homophobia and LGBTIQ exclusion matches the words of campaigns and pledges.”
In further response to the UEFA’s denial for Munich to light up their stadium in Rainbow, DFB clubs all over Germany including Eintracht, Frankfurt, Cologne, Hertha Berlin, Wolfsburg, and Augsburg are planning to light up their stadiums in rainbow colors for Germany and Hungary’s match on Wednesday, June 23rd in solidary.
Sport is a unique platform that offers the opportunity to truly unite people beyond political and cultural differences, but it is also important to help ensure that everybody has an equal place on that platform so that we can truly celebrate what sport is all about.