When it comes to the question of mixing sports and politics, people seem to fall into two distinct camps. One side believes that politics have absolutely no place in sports and that political topics should not be mentioned in any sporting context. The other camp, meanwhile, believes that, like any other facet of life, politics are an intrinsic component of sports and that the understanding of one provides a lens with which to analyze and further understand the other.
Regardless of which side you might fall on, several of the most famous instances of politics intertwining with sport come in the form of protest. Examples range from Tommie Smith and John Carlos' black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games to the more recent instances of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the American national anthem and Lebron James sporting an "I Can't Breathe" shirt referencing a controversial case in New York involving a man's death during an arrest. In each case, athlete-driven protests sought to take advantage of sports' global reach and the millions of television viewers who might see the message. I have written previously about athletes being used as unwitting political pawns. This week, however, I would like to examine a situation where fans, rather than the athletes, have used sporting events as a forum to express political discontent.
Economically driven protests in the East African country of Sudan erupted in the middle of last month as an increase in prices of fuel and bread eroded citizens' buying power. Sudan has struggled to recover from the economic blow delivered by the loss of the oil-rich region of South Sudan, which became independent in 2011. Although Washington ended sanctions that it had imposed against Khartoum due to the latter's status as a state sponsor of terrorism in 2017, Sudan has continued to experience economic difficulties. On Oct. 7, 2018, the country devalued its currency for the third time in 2018 alone.
Reports vary, but Amnesty International reported that 37 protesters were killed in the first week of the protests, which appear to be maintaining their momentum. In the days following the initial outcry, two separate soccer matches turned into congregation points for those protesting the government of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1989. During his three-decade-long reign, he has overseen a civil war with South Sudan and become the subject of an indictment at the International Criminal Court due to war crimes accusations.
Protests in the Stands
During a recent African Champions League match in Khartoum between Sudanese team Al-Hilal Omdurman and Tunisian side Club Africain, Sudanese protesters chanted "the people want the fall of the regime," a slogan first made popular by Tunisian revolutionaries in 2010. From all evidence, this protest seemed to arise spontaneously, as much from a collective gathered to enjoy a shared interest — in this case, soccer — than from a calculated plan. Indeed it is the seeming spontaneity of the protest that makes this scene so striking. Unlike other examples of protest in sport, there was seemingly no participation or support from Al-Hilal's players. After the match, videos shared on Twitter show a jubilant street scene outside the stadium, with large crowds marching, chanting and whistling. The demonstration ended in a hail of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas that Sudanese security forces used to disperse the crowd.
The protests at the stadium and following the match received the approval of retired Sudanese soccer players Haitham Mustafa and Faisal al-Agab via social media. Mustafa, who made over 500 appearances for Al-Hilal and captained both the club and the Sudanese national team, tweeted, "Thank you al-Hilal fans, you have really shown that you are the true sons of the club of patriotism and freedom." Al-Agab went a step further by calling on fans of club Al-Merrikh, Al-Hilal's biggest rival, to continue the anti-government protests, which they did. In the days since the initial voices of dissent against al Bashir began, the Sudanese government has taken steps to limit the power of the protesters, including limiting access to popular social media sites like Twitter and WhatsApp, though that has not stopped Mustafa from continuing to tweet in support of the demonstrations.
Imagine an English Premier League match in which supporters suddenly broke into pro- or anti-Brexit songs and then marched in the streets.
So what makes for an effective protest at a sporting event? Does it have to be led or need the support of high-profile athletes? A fully in-depth and reasoned answer could fill several columns. The simple answer is that it depends. Within the United States, we have kneeling during national anthems, in Sudan, there is chanting and marching in the streets. How one evaluates the effectiveness of each of these protests depends on how one defines the goals for each movement and the speed at which they are achieved.
One key point to consider in the case of Sudan is the difference between a protest within a stadium and organized resistance in other public spaces. The distinction is in the name. Unlike an organized street protest, outcries among fans in stadiums are rarely organized and do not include the participation of every member of the crowd. Imagine an English Premier League match in which supporters suddenly broke into pro- or anti-Brexit songs and then marched in the streets. Or if New Orleans Saints fans turned their anger away from NFL officials and focused their collective energy on demonstrating for or against a border wall. These hypothetical scenes sound ridiculous because nobody attends a sporting event expecting a political protest.
What Next for Sudan?
With Egypt to the north, the immediate comparison in Sudan will revert to the Arab Spring at the beginning of the decade. Whether these protests lead to the ouster of al Bashir in scenes similar to those seen during the 2011 overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak seems highly unlikely. As noted by Bloomberg journalists Mohammed Alamin and Michael Cohen, al Bashir's security forces have twice quelled any previous signs of rebellion. Even if al Bashir stays in power, as a recent Stratfor analysis noted, his path for re-election in 2020 no longer seems as smooth as it would have less than six months ago.
We must always be cautious in not overstating the importance of sport in forcing political change. Yet the two examples in Sudan show that sporting events provide a relatively safe and simple area for protesters to congregate. Additionally, even if there is no intention in protesting, sporting events bring together large groups of people at relatively similar socio-economic levels. It is not a stretch to imagine that the fans' frustrations with a larger sector of society could quickly turn to protest, particularly amid a surrounding atmosphere of discontent. All this considered, it will be interesting to see if future would-be revolutionaries use the powerful media presence at sporting events to publicize their cause.