Athletes Are Not Your Playthings

One thing that strikes me as incredibly strange, is the adulation and subsequent dehumanisation of celebrities, especially athletes. I make the differentiation between sports and entertainment because at least in the case of ‘stans’, there is a concept of almost irrational loyalty to the individual or their group. When it comes to sports, and I see this most often in team sports (think basketball, football or even cricket), today’s hero is tomorrow’s villain

Although I’m very curious to understand what’s behind such fickleness, I have a much more pressing concern: why is it that we believe that athletes should just accept whatever is thrown at them (excuse the pun)? When Russell Westbrook and Trae Young, basketball players on opposing teams, were both subjected to abuse from fans in the same night, my confusion and frustration boiled over. Westbrook had popcorn thrown over him as he left the court with an injury, while Young was spat on during the game – and try as I might, I just can’t understand how anyone would’ve thought this was okay.  It’s also interesting to note where this abuse takes place - in stadiums where there are barriers between athletes and the public or online. This abuse happens where it’s more difficult for those targeted to retaliate, because as we can imagine, if those actions had taken place on the streets, the consequences would be a lot more immediate and arguably painful.

It’s easy for observers to write off this behaviour as just a couple of ‘bad apples’ misrepresenting fans, but in reality, passive members of the public enable this in their attempts to minimise the abuse. In the Twitter comments under a clip of Westbrook’s press conference where he shared his annoyance at the disrespect, a few offered sympathies. However, the majority of comments ranged from sentiments like “it’s just popcorn” to “well, they’re getting paid millions so it shouldn’t matter to them”. And this blasé attitude carries on into the stadiums and pitches, because in the various instances I know of where an individual has hurled abuse or made racist gestures towards players, I rarely hear about that behaviour being intercepted in the moment

Can you imagine being humiliated in your workplace with thousands of people watching and sometimes laughing along? Personally, I don’t believe any amount of money is worth that kind of degradation.

Because fundamentally, that’s what it is. A weird entitlement to athletes’ bodies and wellbeing, fuelled by some delusion that because you’ve paid for tickets, you 'own’ those athletes. If you didn’t know before, I’m telling you now: those tickets are to the game and the game only. Your money doesn’t give you access or rights to the players. And although race isn’t the focus here, let’s not act as if Black and other non-white athletes don’t have another layer of vulnerability when it comes to how they’re perceived and treated by mass media and the public. Race will always be an element in this abuse, especially in societies that are built on colonial and white supremacist ideologies, such as the UK and the US.


This dehumanisation of athletes doesn’t only come from fans, but also the media and sometimes, their respective sports associations. Naomi Osaka was berated by some former athletes and members of the public when she decided to forego press duties to protect her mental health. In response to her announcement, the tennis G4 (unfairly) threatened her with further action outside of the standard fines. Although some criticised the way she announced her decision, Osaka brought up an important point regarding the lack of care towards athletes’ mental health – the response of the four tennis associations (Wimbledon, US Open, French Open and Australian Open) only served to prove her point. Sports associations need to do better to protect their athletes’ physical and mental health, whether that’s through fielding questions or giving athletes more control in their press relations. There have to be serious consequences for the public abusing athletes; ‘warning cards’ or bans, don’t seem to be enough of a deterrent.

At the end of the day, it’s a matter of respect. To us as spectators, sports are a form of entertainment, but to athletes, sports are their livelihoods. Those stadiums, pitches and courts are their places of work and should be treated as such. We would find it reprehensible if customers or clients abused employees, just because they didn’t get their way, so why do we try to justify it when athletes are involved? 

Athletes exist as human beings outside their uniforms, outside the teams they play for, and the countries they represent. And with the Tokyo Olympics due to start in a few days, it’s even more vital that athletes feel protected in their workplaces.

I think we all need to remember that these are fundamentally games. We can dress it up and poeticise sports all we want, but without capitalism and the financial benefits these sports attract, they wouldn’t be as popular as they are now. We need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Is it ever worth damaging another person’s psyche over a game?”. I don’t think it is.


Credit photos: GettyImages

Written by Olamide Tolu-Ogunpolu

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