Shireen Ahmed writes on the power of sport to drive change and celebrate connection in bringing people together, if everyone makes room for each other.
On a chilly December day, I sat with my friends at a cafeteria table on the storied Princeton University campus to watch the Manchester Derby. Attendees had come from around the United States, Canada and Europe in order to attend a conference on football. It was lunch time and as we grabbed a few sandwiches and drinks from the buffet table, we congregated excitedly around an iPad screen. There were at least a dozen of us and we continued to make room for anyone who wished to join. Our group consisted of a few soccer writers, brilliant students, and notable academics and experts on a bevy of topics within the sport. We squeezed in. Our group consisted of folks from the fringes of the industry: queer or racialised or both and frequently othered. Those who don’t “stick to sports”.
One very famous sports writer came over and said rather timidly: “May I watch with you?”. I was a little surprised because this particular journalist was so established that they could have sat at the table with the FIFA suits. Instead, they wanted to hang with us. Immediately we shifted chairs over and made space. Creating space is at the essence of football strategy, and of humanity. What I did observe was a camaraderie and a joy stemming from a shared love of the beautiful game. We laughed and joked, shared opinions, high-fived and cheered for Raheem Sterling. It was a moment of normalcy in our regular lives: enjoying a match with friends. I had no idea how this moment would come back to me months later, as I held tightly to the memories of friends that I missed so much.
The Covid-19 pandemic left us in a lurch. It stopped the clock. It killed the plays. It separated us from the sports we love, and segregated us from our passion. It took some time for many of us to steady ourselves and realise what was happening. It narrowed options for students, and families. It pressed health care systems that were already broken and burdened.
It put a tremendous amount of strain on mothers and increased an already monstrous workload: work, homeschooling, care-giving, etc. It also isolated the vulnerable, and weakened the wobbly defences of the immunocompromised. Racialised folks are often at the frontlines of toil, and it exposed them to increased danger.
Those of us with privilege to stay at home, work remotely and through Zoom calls had a few months to consider the world around us… and contemplate a life without sports. What would we do? What would we watch? Would I, could I be productive? What about my own sports league? My team? How could I exercise? Would I be able to find work when all my engagements were cancelled? Would I be able to support my family as a single-Mom? People were being furloughed, and businesses were shuttering. All these questions and insurmountable levels of anxiety were my constant companions.
Even worse, the reports of Black and Indigenous people being murdered by police and with state funds was painful and horrific. It is not as if it hadn’t been happening for 400 years. Footage was posted and Black death was being recklessly shared as if someone’s life and breath was a social media moment while communities were constantly re-traumatised. We watched athletes from every sport and level of recognition share their grief and pain. Some people who were new to the conversation started to listen. Some asked questions. Some listened. A few insisted on centring themselves in conversations (there are always those people). Some held space for Black grief and Indigenous pain. Many of us tried to support our friends and communities around us. The world was hurting: physically, psychologically and emotionally. Sports were no different.
White and privileged athletes (namely ice hockey players) began to share their thoughts, we saw a shift in the dynamic. There were pledges to understand, donations to organisations committed to justice, and calls to actions. Protests swelled around the world. Statues of brutal tyrants were toppled and pushed to the depth of the waters to rot among the bones of precious slaves they had murdered centuries before. Kids were protesting bigotry and KPop fans were ruling the interwebs with their digital-activism. Entire teams were taking a knee. It was surreal and not something I ever fathomed possible.
This was a moment in time we had never seen before. Athlete activists had been speaking since time immemorial but for some reason, the ripples of knowledge turned into a deluge. One that might wash away the doubt and the unknowing. It might quench the thirst for anti-oppression knowledge. Athletes had always been speaking out; as my beloved Burn It All Down co-host Dr. Amira Davis has said “They always had a voice, they just had to find the mic”.
Sports provided an amplification of platforms. Yes, there is an obvious commodification of Black Lives Matter that we must be wary of, but I also believe that there some people are genuinely trying to unlearn. But at what cost? Those who put themselves on the line are often racialised women and men.
I think of the words of my dear friend Musa Okwonga of Stadio Podcast when he wrote of the unspoken cost of not being silent: “Recently I have been thinking about sacrifice. I have been reading and listening to several Black people say how afraid they are to be outspoken about racism, for fear it will harm their careers, and then I have gone on to be outspoken about it. I wonder what being outspoken has cost me”.
The obstacles that BIPoC writers and journalists endure in their own industries seem endless. If we want to report on issues of race or justice, we are accused of not being objective, or then tokenised for a piece. I started my career focusing on Muslim women in sports, and their challenges. My pitches were rejected too many times to count. I was often told that I was an “activist not a journalist”. I was advocating for the safe inclusion of Muslim and racialised women in sports. I still do this. And it does not preclude me from reporting, or from doing excellent work. I created a space in an industry of 90% white, able bodied, cis het men who were disinterested in the stories I wanted to write. This was the topic of my TEDx talk: What about the sports stories that we don’t hear?
The gatekeepers with power have been banking on the silence of marginalised people. And now, they are now trying to shut the doors that have been opened up a crack. People are speaking out and it will either be met with resistance or resentment or, hopefully, acceptance. It can strip away the white supremacy and suppression of opportunity that infests these places. There is so much to do, and so much work and we are exhausted. So, we turn to each other.
As the NWSL season resumed and the English Premier League football re-started, I was concerned about the safety of the players but also eager because truthfully, I had missed football immensely. I found myself online chatting with my usual crew of friends. There were no conferences or gatherings (all cancelled) and it was hard to believe that one year ago, we were assembled in France to enjoy the Women’s World Cup. But these interactions over football are important and special irrespective of being exclusively online.
Finding yourself in a particular place of happiness is wonderful after months of uncertainty and for some, isolation. I endured a few weeks alone (when my children were visiting their father) and I leaned heavily on my friends and my sports community.
As I watched a NWSL match, fingers flying in between tweets and WhatsApp messages to dear friends, I thought back to that table at Princeton. How people from different corners of the continent, different faiths, different races, different levels of privilege gathered around a table not only because of football, but because of a shared vision of justice and anti-oppression. That is how communities are formed. This is how Disrupters FC was formed. We must preserve and protect these communities.
Therein lies the reality: sports are more than just game statistics and scores. They are a reason that we meet, share and commiserate. We share a mutual burden or happy result.
And sports connect us —to achieve bigger wins than a trophy or a title. We can win by striving for justice while soaking up joy. I have become close with my football friends. I have leaned on teammates when times were dark for me, and I look to them for guidance and support now. Be they chosen family who live for hockey in Montreal, cricket lovers in Pakistan, my dear Aussie friends, FARE Network mates in London, or Disrupters FC.
Sport can build strong communities that connect us to combat anti-Blackness, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Ableism, transphobia, Islamophobia and misogyny. And that’s how we all win.
As the great Dr. Angela Davis said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time”.
Shireen Ahmed is a writer, TEDx Speaker, and award-winning sports activist who focuses on Muslim women, and the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. She lives in the Greater Toronto Area with her children and her cat.