Usman Khawaja questions the uneasy connection between cricket and activism | Written by Daniel Gallan
In the end, censorship prevailed. Usman Khawaja likely anticipated that the phrases he wrote on his boots would attract scrutiny from cricket’s authorities. These messages were not explicitly political, as it is difficult to argue against the ideas that “all lives are equal” and “freedom is a human right”. However, it was expected that Khawaja’s form of athlete activism would not be embraced by the sport of cricket.
In the past 60 years, CLR James posed the question, “What do they truly understand about cricket if they only know about cricket?” This encouraged both fans and players to examine the sport’s history of colonialism, address racial disparities, and acknowledge that factors outside of the game influenced who had the opportunity to represent their country in scoring points and taking wickets. Today, James’s question is still relevant.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of where cricket falls short, it is valuable to compare it to the involvement of American sports stars and the exceptional support system for athlete activism. Starting with Jack Johnson, a black boxer from Texas who became the heavyweight world champion in 1907, American athletes have been actively engaged in broader discussions about society and politics.
Following Johnson was Jesse Owens, who challenged Adolf Hitler’s beliefs and his own country’s segregation policies by earning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. In 1967, Muhammad Ali solidified the connection between athletes and social activism when he refused to participate in the Vietnam War.
Currently, all of the major sports in the United States have their own influential figures who are activists. Even though Colin Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since 2017 due to his significant involvement in the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement and popularizing the gesture of taking a knee, other athletes such as LeBron James, Simone Biles, and Megan Rapinoe have been able to maintain successful careers while using their platform to speak out against injustices.
Dr Harry Edwards, the architect of the Olympic Project for Human Rights that emboldened Tommie Smith and John Carlos to protest racial inequalities from the podium of the 1968 Games in Mexico City (which was supported by Australian sprinter Peter Norman), has said it works in the US because “you need an ideological scaffolding that can project and frame the activism.”
“This is stoked by the outspokenness of powerful personalities who address what Dr Martin Luther King terms ‘the fierce urgency of now’ against a background and tradition of activism.”
Khawaja, a prominent Australian cricketer, holds a powerful voice compared to others. It is evident that immediate action must be taken to address the devastating situation in Gaza, which inspired Khawaja’s statement written in the Palestinian flag’s colors. However, there is a lack of a history of activism in cricket and Australian sports in general, making this an exceptional case.
There are significant instances where individuals have taken a stand against injustice. In 1932, Vijay Merchant, an allrounder from India, refused to participate in a tour of England as a form of protest against the imprisonment of Mahatma Gandhi and other freedom fighters. In 1970, Tom Cartwright of England played a crucial role in the Basil D’Oliveira controversy, which resulted in the international isolation of South Africa’s cricket team due to their apartheid policies. The most courageous example was in 2003 when Henry Olonga and Andy Flower wore black armbands to raise awareness of the atrocities committed by Robert Mugabe, the dictator of Zimbabwe at the time. Both individuals have since been living in exile due to death threats they received.
In 2014, Moeen Ali from England wore wristbands with the messages “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine”. While the English Cricket Board permitted him to do so, the ICC quickly took action, stating that he violated their code of conduct which prohibits wearing items or clothing with political messages.
Genuine activism challenges the existing norms and creates a clear division of opinions, setting it apart from charitable work or humanitarian efforts. Those in positions of power often overlook those who deviate from the accepted path. This is evidenced by the ICC’s approval of the Indian cricket team wearing camouflage caps in support of their army during border tensions with Pakistan in 2019, despite it potentially violating ICC’s rules. Therefore, the ICC’s decision to impose restrictions on Khawaja shows their double standards. It is evident that the issue at hand is not the message itself, but rather the target of the campaign.
Disregarding the extreme nationalism of Narendra Modi’s administration or the belief that the BCCI holds ultimate control over cricket, it is noteworthy that the two well-known cricketers who have faced repercussions from the ICC are both Muslim and have faced discrimination in their respective home countries. Khawaja has previously been subjected to hostility for his advocacy for the BLM movement and for his refusal to wear uniforms featuring alcohol endorsements. Similar to past American icons, he has remained steadfast in his beliefs.
“I will continue to support and defend my statement, it is something I will stand by indefinitely,” stated Khawaja prior to the start of the first day of the Test against Pakistan. “There have been previous instances where the ICC has not taken action against players for similar actions, so I feel it is unjust that they are now penalizing me.”
He plans to contest the restriction imposed on him and is fully supported by his team’s management and captain, Pat Cummins. Despite facing harsh criticism, Cummins has also used his platform to raise awareness about the climate crisis. If Khawaja is successful in sharing his message, it could be a significant moment in a sport that has historically struggled with athlete activism.