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March 31, 2023
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KEVIN MCCALLUM: Only an abnormal society would not have politics in sport

There are few things thinner than the skin of a politician when their image is impinged upon. For the ANC, it was Andre de Ruyter and accusations of the corruption that runs rampant through the party, the very same corruption members have admitted publicly themselves. 

For the Conservative Party in the UK it was Gary Lineker telling them their plan to stop small boats of refugees and asylum seekers had more than the whiff of the German actions of the 1930s. That would be Nazi Germany.

Lineker put the Conservatives and the Nazis in the same tweet. It all kicked off. The Right, for want of a better description, went dilly with indignation and frothy with anger, calling for Lineker to be fired from his £1.35m-a-year gig with the BBC, where he presents Match of the Day. He is the BBC’s highest-paid on-air talent.

The BBC says it values impartiality over all else from its journalists and broadcasters, and it has tried to crack down on what is viewed as “politicised” social media interaction, that is, anyone having a voice of any kind. The problem for the BBC is that Lineker is a freelancer and as such works for himself. It does not own him, even if it desperately wants to.

The second issue is that he is incredibly popular. The BBC simply cannot afford to lose him. It will lose more viewers than it may gain. The issue at hand is about the right of public figures in sport to speak up about what they perceive as social and political injustice. No politics in sport is an old and nonsense line. There has always been and always will be politics in sport. To seek taking it out of sport is fruitless and disingenuous.

Remember the call of “No normal sport in an abnormal country” during apartheid? Remember how that caught the eye of the world on the evil happening in this country? 

The reaction to Lineker saying he wanted to speak out for “those poor souls that have no voice” has been reactionary and expected. It led the Daily Mail and the 10pm news on the BBC. The Daily Telegraph turned itself inside out to slate Lineker. 

Oliver Brown is the Telegraph’s chief sports writer and, for a few days, its political commentator. “[Lineker] blurs the demarcation between Match of the Day host and political agitator so often that it is no longer even a surprise. Just three months after Michelle Donelan, the former culture secretary, castigated his ‘very questionable, derogatory comments’ in calling the US an ‘extraordinarily racist country’, he is back on the horse, proving the old logic that if enough mud is slung in any debate, Hitler will be dragged into it,” wrote Brown, who is very white. 

“Where Lineker crosses the line is in the fact that much of his pious posturing is conducted on the public dime,” he went on, echoing a line about Lineker being paid by the British taxpayer through the licence fee. 

Brown is not a fan of social activism. He was interviewed on television about taking the knee and Black Lives Matter, and the fans who booed it at football matches.

“I think you have to be quite careful in answering it because I don’t believe everyone booing was an irredeemable racist,” said Brown, before tying himself in a knot. “Some of them undoubtedly are, but I think there are other problems in that some people perceive this as an import from America.” 

Well, duh. Of course, taking the knee is an import from the US.  His name was Colin Kaepernick of the gridiron San Francisco 49ers, who first took the knee during the playing of the US anthem in 2016 to highlight the oppression of people of colour.

That would be the US where black men are gunned down and throttled to death by police officers. That would be the US of racism. 

Brown is one of many who suggested Lineker stand for public office if he wishes to make a difference, another old line akin to keep politics out of sport. Lineker would not have half the reach he does now in the mess of politics, where lies slip over the truth like syrup and produce no change.

Lineker has a voice and a need to use that. More strength to him.


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