Last Friday, following the passing of former South African president Nelson Mandela -- Galatasaray S.K. stars Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Eboue, both hailing from the Ivory Coast, wore undershirts displaying their gratitude to the late humanitarian and global icon. As a result of this commemoration the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) discussed disciplinary action against the Ivorians. In effect, punishing the footballers for showing their heartfelt thanks to one of the most beloved men of his, or any other generation. After public backlash they decided not to levy punishment against the Ivory Coast internationals, a correct decision in my opinion -- the only decision in my opinion.
I couple this with action taken against West Bromwich Albion, and U-21 England forward Sadio Berahino; who was given a booking, and in turn a one-game suspension, for displaying an undershirt, "RIP" salutation to his recently deceased father in an U-21 European Championship qualifier against Finland last month.
With instances like these I can't help but think – what has the world's come to? And what does this say about the sporting world in general? In the end the correct decision was made, but why was there “controversy” in the first place?
Professional sports are, in most cases, engines for monetary gain. Not for a second will I suggest every sporting franchise on the planet makes money when the ledgers are parsed, but I will contend every owner, and/or conglomerate, in charge of a sporting franchise has their stake in hopes to eventually make money. Football associations are no different. Their aim is to uphold the reputation of their respective leagues, and will stop at nothing to protection their image and enhance their reputation.
So where does this leave the employees of said organizations?
It leaves them disciplined for showing condolences, number one.
The goal in bookings and "discipline" for undershirt messages is to dissuade athletes from showing logos of sponsors and making political or religious statements. If money wasn't the end game, undershirts would be the least of corporations worries; but God forbid a player on a team sponsored by Adidas shows a Nike undershirt with "RIP" on it -- the world just might stop turning. It’s somewhat ironic in the case of Drogba and Eboue, as they seem unable to display appreciation for a man whose entire life was a political and religious statement: that statement being one of equality and freedom.
It shows a lack of institution awareness, and plainly, arrogance on the part of these organizations. Firstly, if a player shows a message of condolence to a member of their family, who in their right mind is concerned with the sponsor of the shirt? It's as if the governing bodies think supporters watching games have no conscious. Like there's no way we would actually read the message on the fabric -- I think they assume we'll just ogle the logo instead.
It's nonsensical and slightly disrespectful to our collective intelligence.
Secondly, I understand if a player had a message of hatred or malice underneath their shirt -- by all means take action against them, no argument can be made in that case; but by and large the messages are either commemorative of a life, or a message to one's fans. -- not a source of derision or division. Last, and most importantly -- as long as you can read the message, the people in skyboxes should be able to comprehend it, determine its merit on an individual basis, and make a logical judgment thereof -- not blanket all communication via undershirt as being political or religious mongering.
By dissuading athletes to speak on issues via the pitch, it protects the brands established by clubs and associations. The illogical part comes when you realise a player can hurt your brand just as badly off the pitch as they can on it -- if not more so given the right circumstances. Which makes the need (hopefully not the want) to slap wrists and lighten pockets all the more ridiculous. No player with their wits about them is going to willingly break the rules, just as the average guy on the sidewalk isn't going to jump in front of a moving car -- there's no upside to it.
The need for permission seems demeaning. These are adults living in free societies, whose dogma usually centres on protecting the rights of its citizens – chief among those rights being freedom of speech. Even still, as an athlete one is expected to walk the company line, and become a heartless, robot-like cog for three hours at a given time. It feels like: “forget if your mother just passed, go out and get us some goals.”
I'm sure some may be thinking: "Daniel, these guys get paid millions of dollars a year, what's the big deal?" Well, I'd ask how much is your family worth to you? And if you were able show millions of people via television your love and affection, would you stop yourself? I'd have a hard time personally. As Nelson Mandela is seen throughout Africa as a father-figure, the display from Drogba and Eboue is in many ways similar to Berahino's tribute -- whose yellow card and subsequent suspension was widely frowned upon.
In my eyes, the decision to book, prosecute, punish or reprimand a player based on free speech via their undershirt should be done on a case-by-case basis. If the TFF decided to fine the Ivory Coast internationals, it wouldn’t have reflect badly on the players -- it would have reflect reflect poorly on the governing bodies. If there's an inability to empathize with athletes paying public tribute to arguably the most influential human -- certainly the most influential African -- in the 20th century, we have way bigger problems in society than I ever thought possible.
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." ~ Nelson Mandela