In an open letter to the government in 2020, the player pleaded for MPs in parliament to provide free school meals for children in the summer school holidays during the coronavirus pandemic.
Following his efforts and campaigning, the government overturned its decision.
And while this was probably the most prominent story to hit the headlines, many other stars are also using their platforms to bring about positive change.
The conscious shift in society and sport
Over the last year, individual sports stars, as well as whole teams, have been much more vocal and bold in showing their support for key issues by taking the knee to fight racial injustice, displaying the rainbow on football shirts, race cars and arm bands to support LGBTQ+ inclusion, and demanding social media platforms tackle online abuse.
According to Dr Philip Clarke, Lecturer in Sport Psychology at the University of Derby, there has been a shift in the mood of society around these issues, with people becoming more aware of them and vocal in wanting positive change to happen.
“As a society, we have become much more aware of the impact of issues such as racial and homophobic abuse, and how unacceptable it is, and therefore we’re more vocal about speaking out against it.
“With racism, in particular, there are many people in sport who will have experienced it themselves, and others who may have known it existed, but didn’t know how bad it was. Now, people in society are starting to see the real impact it’s having on the victims and recognising that it isn’t right and that something needs to be done.
“You can now see it is the fans looking and fighting for equality because that is the way society is moving forward – the clubs and players are moving with the times, and the fans are doing the same. It is great to see this happening because collectively we are having a much bigger, more positive impact on society.”
This shift could not be any more obvious than in football, a sport renowned for its lack of action when it comes to tackling social issues, even when it impacted players.
Speaking on Sky’s documentary, ‘Micah Richards: Tackling Racism’, former Manchester United and England player Gary Neville spoke about the time one of his teammates, Ashley Cole, faced racist abuse at a 2004 match in Spain.
Neville told Richards: “I didn't talk to him about it. The message may have been, 'Forget about it Ash. Get on with your football'. I had been complicit in accepting racism in my dressing room.”
But there’s now a growing number of current and ex-players speaking out about issues. Raheem Sterling called out the Daily Mail for ‘fuelling racist behaviour’, while teams Paris St-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir walked off the pitch at a Champions League game in protest after alleged racist abuse from an official to Pierre Webo, a member of the Turkish club’s coaching staff
In addition, Women’s USA national football team stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe spoke out after the death of George Floyd about the need for change.
It seems as though football has ‘woken-up’ to the issues at the same time as society – particularly the younger generation – and is making more of a stand, at least that is what Peter Lansley, Senior Lecturer in Football Journalism at the University, feels has happened.
“I think part of it is because there is almost a new breed of footballers being conscious of how impactful their status is,” he says.
“As football clubs became richer in the early 90s, they would have taken the players under their wings and said things like, ‘this is the party line’, ‘this is what you’re allowed to say’, ‘don’t speak out on political issues because you’re not qualified to’, ‘just focus on the game’, and ‘we want you to stay on brand’.
“Now players have become bigger than their football clubs. Players are taking charge of their own brand and they have realised they can impact the world with their messaging.
“It is almost as though the shackles have been taken off them and they are now encouraged, not to be robots, but to be thoughtful, street-wise people who can use their voice for good.”
How sport has driven forward the agenda
It is not just racism sports stars have spoken out about; they have used their voices in a number of ways to champion a range of different causes.
Formula One has displayed the rainbow, a universal sign for the LGBTQ+ community, on its suits and cars, while footballers have also been vocal in their support.
As part of the Rainbow Laces campaign, run by charity Stonewall to promote LGBTQ+ inclusion in football, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson wore a rainbow armband and received a Tweet from a fan about how much it meant to them, with Henderson replying, giving his support to that fan and others who may be a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
This show of ‘ally-ship’ will go a long way in supporting the LGBTQ+ community in sport, according to Football v Homophobia Youth Panel Co-Coordinator Beatrice Thirkettle.
“Where we see it helping to make change happen is with allies,” says Beatrice. “There was a point when there were rumours that (Ruben) Loftus-Cheek was gay or bisexual and he tweeted that ‘any player who came out as gay, they'd have his full support and respect. But the rumour isn't true’. This is a really strong statement; he was saying although he is not gay or bisexual, any teammates who are have his support.
“When we see both LGTBQ+ athletes come out and tell their stories and be activists in that area alongside allies I think that’s really positive and does make change happen.”
Another way sports stars have used their platforms as a force for positive change has been by launching campaigns on social media, calling on their followers to support them and helping to create greater awareness.
Marcus Rashford’s campaign is an impactful example of this. As part of his campaign to end child food poverty, in October 2020 the footballer created a petition to get the government to provide meals during all holidays for schoolchildren, which has received more than one million signatures.
"If you can do one thing for me tonight, sign the petition," he posted on Twitter.
This demonstrates how sports stars have used their growing status to raise awareness and to try and combat social issues, according to Chris Hall, Lecturer in Journalism at the University.
“First of all, sports stars’ profiles have never been bigger,” he says. “Obviously social media has been prevalent for a long time now, but it has gone beyond the fun and games of it.
“Twitter has become very political, as has Facebook. I think people are almost seeing these as less content-style platforms and instead being more of a platform to discuss important issues.
“There is a domino effect with these things; it takes one person to speak out on these sorts of issues and then others come to the fore.
“The other thing is that it’s issues that the players are impacted by, but again there is now less of a culture of it being a mantle around their neck to talk about what they are facing, they are now speaking out about their experiences, instead of suffering in silence.”
Whether it is offering support to a cause or posting on social media to bring another into the public spotlight, what is clear is that teams and players are making the most of their platforms as role models.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a role model is “a person who someone admires and whose behaviour they try to copy”. And Dr Charlotte Chandler, Senior Lecturer in Sport Outdoor and Exercise Science at the University, feels it stretches to changing views on social issues.
“While we typically look at that (being a role model) in terms of copying what they (athletes) do to become an athlete, I think the notion applies to these aspects of social change,” she says. “If we see these people that we look up to and are inspired by being involved in these issues and making change, I think that can be inspiring for everyone else.”
A group effort
While the impact of sport has been clear in terms of raising awareness and trying to fight certain issues, more can always be done. But sport cannot do it alone and, according to Philip Clarke, it has a limited reach.
“Sport is the shop window; with so many people ’looking through’, so the actions you see there do influence society,” he explains.
“But I think everything has a limit, and it depends on whose eyes are observing it. Sport is just one avenue for it. Musicians and actors are doing it, and you’re also seeing it throughout all types of careers, people are doing different things to try and help fight against injustices.”
Derby County Community Trust demonstrates the idea that sport cannot tackle these issues alone, by working with several non-sporting organisations across Derbyshire to help improve and educate communities.
Head of Community at the Trust Simon Carnall says: “Not everyone is switched on by football. While you could take a traditional view, a lot of boys will be engaged by a football club's brand. There are a lot of communities across our city that won’t have an affinity with football and are removed from where the club is.
“So, it is our job to try and work within those communities, not to get them to play football because that isn’t just what we do, but how we can engage them in our programmes where football isn’t the delivery vehicle.
“It is so important to bring partners round the table. If you look at what we do in the city and how we work with our cultural partners: Derby Theatre, Deda, QUAD, Baby People, how we work with other sporting organisations to create an offering that does engage people so if they don’t like football, we have other things that they might like that they can engage with. I describe sport’s role as the glue that brings everything together.”
And he believes that this joint effort is the only way society can move forward and start to achieve equality and inclusion.
Simon adds: “Sport is incredibly powerful; it has the platform. You only have to look at what Marcus Rashford has done in terms of his ability from his platform to influence government policy.
“What we have to be mindful of is that sport can’t do it on its own. These are societal problems that sport must help and can contribute to tackling – but it needs others to stand up too.”