From Marcus Rashford to Michael Jordan: The evolving role of pro athletes in culture

Thought Leadership

This week we saw Marcus Rashford, at the age of just 22, become a national hero.

His actions in writing an open letter to ask for the extension of free school meals for children in England is a sign of the new position that athletes and sport have in society. The letter forced the hand of the UK Prime Minister to u-turn on his decision and support children who are living on the poverty line.

The political actions of Rashford shine a light on just how far the cultural role of sports has come.

One of the biggest cultural moments of lockdown for sport was The Last Dance, a gripping biography of Michael Jordan’s iconic career with the Chicago Bulls. However, the show has been criticised for not portraying the full spectrum of Jordan’s personality.

A stand out comment from Jordan was “If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would never want to be considered a role model. It’s like a game that’s stacked against me. There’s no way I can win.” This is the face of the Jordan Brand. One of the biggest icons in the history of sport, opening up to the fact that he wanted to show only what was on the court. And didn’t want to be politicised or use his influence to support or promote causes.

However, this month, the Jordan brand announced that it is donating $100m over the next 10 years to organisations assisting Black people with social justice and greater access to education.

The socially aware sports star 
Athletes are now judged on more than their athletic performances. The increased access provided by social media means fans connect with superstars on a deeper level. They are role models beyond their sportsmanship and success, and have a duty of care to their community of fans to provide a message that benefits society.

Younger football fans follow players rather than clubs. And players transcend their sports. Colin Kapernick is not just a quarterback, he is a civil rights activist whose protests since 2016 have become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. These protests have resulted in FIFA and the NFL removing their bans on players taking the knee. Something that saw Real Madrid’s Marcelo take the knee after scoring in their last game. Even the Olympics is now under pressure to review its own ban on political statements at the games.  

And sport itself doesn’t just stay on the court. It has evolved to be more culturally relevant. And the audience has too. Fans see their involvement with sport as core to their self-identity, and the cross-section between music, film, fashion and politics is more intertwined than ever before. Meaning that the role sports plays in influencing fans’ opinions has become heightened as a result. 

Athletes are now brands, and while their performance at their last match is vitally important to fans, often what they stand for personally is too. Each star knows that their next move could be hindered by a lack of social following or a controversial opinion that’s been slated by the social community. Their ability to get new deals with sponsors is going to be influenced by their ability to communicate positively with consumers. 

For athletes, choosing causes that resonate and are true to their own identity is vitally important. That’s why Rashford’s appearance on BBC Breakfast this week was so impactful. And why Derrick Rose standing with Black Lives Matters protestors in Portland was not just political posturing. It’s also why Ajee Wilson has a prominent role with the Women In Sport Foundation. 

In this new cultural landscape, the way brands work with talent will also inevitably change. Brands need to choose authentic partnerships with the athletes that represent their values. They shouldn’t chase follower bases or news coverage, they should seek to develop partnerships that are true to their own brand. And they should make clear decisions about when those partnerships should end. 

As the world continues to change with rapid pace, reacting to the events and new realities of our consumers is more important than ever. 

We believe brands and athletes need to constantly challenge the rules of sports marketing. If you are looking to get back to your marketing as sport reopens we can help, find out how in the resource below.


This article was written by John Crozier, Business Development Director at We Are Social Sport.