Keith Duggan: Sports stars find their voices in a troubled year

It’s the athletes rather than the owners who have the conch now. When did that happen?

It was mid-May and the world was in freefall when the name of Luke Chadwick began to appear on the timelines of social media accounts and news pages.

Try to remember that time in a year, Lord knows, when it’s difficult to remember yesterday: everything in the world had, of course, stopped: flights, economies, fun, jobs, real life. The weather gorgeous and nowhere to go and everyone had turned their fridge freezer into a home office and were hitting the gin as soon as the clock struck four.

There was plenty of time for 'reflection' on the vulnerability of the human race and how we took the planet for granted and how David Attenborough was right all along. And time also to watch all the box sets and make amusing pastiche dance routines on TikTok. Sport - that big, needy-show off- fell into a vacuum, bubbling away at the edges of our addled minds.

Luke Chadwick is 40 years old now but spent his late teenage years as a player on the fringes of Manchester United’s glitteringly talented turn-of-the-millennium squad. He made 25 first team appearances in four years and moved on: better than most.


The reason why his name started lighting up social media accounts was because of an interview he gave in the Athletic, in which he revealed that those years had been hell. Chadwick had been mercilessly and repeatedly mocked for his appearance by the cast of comedians on They Think It’s All Over, a heavy-handed and dismal satirical sports show that ran for a few years as the last sting of the Loaded subculture.

We live in the Age of Sharing so his revelation could have easily been washed away in a deluge of celebrities clamouring to reveal this or that hidden vulnerability. But Chadwick was nobody’s idea of a contemporary celebrity, least of all his own.

In the early 2000s Chadwick was a kid making his way in a man’s world: the brutally eat-or-be-eaten world of English football dressing rooms and the snarling hostility of away fans. As it turned out, Chadwick remembers his time in the Cliff as a sanctuary: all of the senior players whom he idolised and was intimidated by treated him wonderfully.

But the abuse from the terraces grew more savage as Chadwick became a running television joke. The Premier League may be genteel in comparison to the 1980s but the vicious wit hasn’t gone away. And Chadwick’s life was made miserable: he dreaded the airing of the show on Friday nights, he scarcely left the modest flat he rented in Manchester except to go to training and felt self-conscious to the point of being stunted.

"I had spots on my face, teeth that stuck out," he explained in a radio show in May. Much like half the teenagers in Western Europe, then. The difference was, not every awkward teenager played in a Manchester United team which included David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the most marketable and relentlessly marketed figures in world sport.

Speak out

Chadwick's point was not to seek sympathy or vengeance but to encourage people to speak out if they are struggling with private stresses or fears. Nick Hancock, the host of the long-forgotten show, apologised and sounded genuinely appalled at himself. Comedy was fair game, he explained and Chadwick a public figure. He was half right: comedy is fair game. But does a tongue-tied youngster become a public figure by virtue of pulling on a United shirt?

Chadwick wondered, in retrospect, if he could have done anything about it: whether it would have been possible for a 19 year old boy to 'stop' the BBC from talking about how he looked. And it's probably true that he possessed neither the wherewithal nor the composure to do so. But it's equally true that had Alex Ferguson been aware of the satirical coursing of one of his young players, he would have killed it stone dead with a single phone call delivered with icy Govan clarity and a few choice expletives.

Rashford's stance was in keeping with the backbone of athletes across the world in 2020

You shudder to think what would have happened if Roy Keane had been unleashed. Instead Chadwick suffered in silence until this May.

Around the same time as Chadwick spoke out, a young Manchester United star of the current era was coming under fire for different reasons. The English football season was suspended on April 3rd. As the Johnson government bumbled through catastrophe upon catastrophe, health secretary Matt Hancock delivered a lecture to football's young millionaires, advising that they should "take a pay cut, make a contribution and play their part."

As it turned out, dozens of Premier League footballers would spend the surreal months of April and May, when the world order seemed to hang by a thread, getting stuck into community charity events.

United's Marcus Rashford took it to a different realm, initiating the free schools meals campaign, unflinchingly taking on several Tory politicians through social media and essentially shaming the UK government into endorsing his scheme.

It’s true that Rashford had more clout at 23 than Chadwick had when he was that age: Rashford is United’s bone fida striking star and the future of England. Still, to the political elite, he was just a mouthy know-nothing footballer.

The chasm of experience between the 22 year-old Rashford and the 22 year-old Chadwick is significant. The coursing of sports stars still exists but has moved from the relatively governable and accountable medium of television to the bleak jungle of social media, where anonymity and trolling rule. But Rashford could use his vast social media following to mobilise a small army of community minded café owners around England to sign up to his vision.

It was an unforgettable moment: an unimpeachable example of national decency and compassion set against the needling, poisonous backdrop of Brexit.

Rashford’s stance was in keeping with the backbone of athletes across the world in 2020. There has been a shift, a growing sense that it’s the athletes - the ballers, the talent, the people who fill the auditoriums - rather than the owners and shareholders who have the conch now. When did that happen?

Among those who died from Covid-19 this year was Eric Hall, the man who branded himself as football's first ever agent. Hall was a post war east Londoner, a mischievous wideboy with a wardrobe borrowed from Del Boy Trotter and a fast talking patter developed in his music years when he represented everyone from Elton John to the Sex Pistols.

In football, Hall represented characters like Razor Ruddock and Terry Venables and smoked a big cigar and was good fun. He famously negotiated a bonus for one of his players on the proviso that he scored 10 goals: it was only later he learned that his man was a goalkeeper. Hall fell away from the game in the late 1990s and the void was soon filled with replacements diligent in their homework and remorseless in the negotiating world.

Soon, all serious athletes in all sports had their agents. The most prominent of these (Scott Boras, $100 million per annum, Constantin Dumitrescu, $89 million per annum) have become mind-bogglingly wealthy on the commissions they earned through their negotiations. In the past two decades, pro' sports salary increases have inflated like never before so it stands to reason most powerful stars -Messi or Pogba or LeBron James called the shots.

In the weeks after the pandemic, the sports-obsessed world began to absorb the implications of the virus on their pastimes and habits. On March 11th, just minutes before throw in, it was announced that an NBA game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma Thunder had been postponed.

The game was a national television broadcast. Until then, the virus had felt like a relatively distant threat. Now, it was in the auditorium: one of the players had tested positive. The place cleared. The NBA season was suspended the day after. The financial implications of this were head-wrecking. In the coming weeks, the cancellation of huge sports events - the European football championships on March 17th, Wimbledon on April 1st, the Premier League two days later - made it clear that the party was over.

The full ravages of the coronavirus were evident on the harrowing news reports from Italy and New York but the virus hadn’t fully reached localised shores yet. Within weeks of the cancellations, sports administrators began to plot how to complete seasons and, more pressingly, now to honour television contracts.

Last Dance

For a month or two, there was precious little sport on television. The Cheltenham racing festival pressed ahead, to widespread dismay. Snooker enjoyed, once more, the glow of an undivided audience. And with magisterial timing, The Last Dance, the 10 part documentary deep dive into Michael Jordan’s indelible influence on American life and culture, was broadcast on Netflix.

Jordan had made a return to public life in tragic circumstances at the beginning of the year, tearing up as he remembered Kobe Bryant, the incandescent Lakers star who, along with his daughter and five others linked with their youth basketball team, were killed when their helicopter crashed in dense fog.

Bryant was such a sinewy, driven life force with such global appeal that at the time, it felt like his death would be one of the defining sports moments of the year. By May, when the Jordan documentary aired, it was difficult to even remember January. The streaming service played it smart, airing the show the old terrestrial way: episode by weekly episode.

Jordan had the world at home and nothing to do: the ultimate captive audience: easy to imagine him nodding in unsurprised approval through a haze of cigar smoke. The show was a sensation and heightened the sense of disorientation: that time had somehow become mixed up through the pandemic. A generation dived happily into the carefree decade of the 1990s.

It was back to the future in England, too. The unease and unrest and sleeplessness was reflected even when sport began to make its return. Liverpool's 30 year wait for the league ended with a sense of understated completion, no fans present and a memorable jig of tipsy delight by Jurgen Klopp as the squad celebrated in what appeared to be a garage. Meanwhile, the NBA season took place in the central location of Disneyland, with all teams moving into a 'bubble' environment rather than jetting from city to city in their usual states of exhaustion.

So they had time on their hands at night to sit down and watch the social unrest and protests flaring across America as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum. And again, they called the shots. In late August, the players of the Minnesota Timberwolves voted not to take the floor just minutes before they were due to play the Orlando Magic in a play-off game in protest of the police shooting of an unarmed Wisconsin man, Jacob Blake. Within a day, the NBA followed their lead, cancelling all games. Baseball followed suit.

In New York, Naomi Osaka won the US Open tennis tournament but her performances were almost overshadowed by her mission statement: she wore a face mask featuring the names of seven different shooting victims into the arena before each of her games. Two years earlier, Osaka had succumbed to tears after the local crowd had aggressively supported her opponent, Serena Williams.

A rambling, giggly speech after a tournament win at Indian Wells had led to urgent advice from her sponsors to polish up her persona. Instead, Osaka began to delve more deeply into her background, which is Japanese-Haitian and became a vocal supporter of the BLM movement.

"Forever, whether it was the WTA tour or other interested parties, everyone was always putting pressure on me to get Naomi media trained," her agent, Stuart Duguid told the New York Times this year. "I always thought that would be a mistake for her. That's the last thing we wanted to contrive."

His instinct was correct. People responded to Osaka’s spontaneity and unfiltered responsiveness. She will finish 2020 has the top earning female athlete in sport, earning $37 million in winnings and almost the same in endorsements. Through accident rather than design, she stumbled on what the public seem to want from sports stars: a sense that they are authentic and in touch.

There is the suspicion that LeBron James’ very public displays of social conscience are a little too calculating and polished: that while well-intentioned and often impactful, there is always half an eye on the legacy he wants to concoct.

The trouble is a legacy is something that you ultimately have no control over. That was abundantly clear in the more localised world of Irish football. It was a strange year for the beautiful game in Ireland. The aftermath of the fall of John Delaney continued to overshadow the association on the 13th anniversary of Italia '90. And shortly after an intense and fond reminiscence of that summer and those squiffy three weeks when Ireland fell in love with both football and itself, the word came that Jack Charlton had quietly slipped away.

It was only when he left the football stage that we realized that he had one of the imperishable Northern voices, as rich as that of Ted Hughes and with a comparably nuanced appreciation of words. The death of Charlton provoked a rush of affection in Ireland which most heads of states could not hope to match. For any Irish people under the age of 35, the footage and reminisces would have been baffling. No, those who could remember that summer, those occasions assured them. You had to be there.

The same will be said of the long, hot slow summer of 2020 but for very different reasons. And at the end of a troubled year, when the border issue and Brexit hangs like a dull worry behind the fog of the pandemic, it’s comforting to remember Charlton’s words.

“It was time for me to leave,” said one of England’s gilded sons of 1966 a decade after he had left the Ireland job.

“And I suppose now, after 10 years, I’m as much Irish as I am English. I am now an Irish citizen. I’m not an honorary: I’m an Eye-reesh citizen. A’ve got me passport, I’ve got a house over there, I get back and forth whenever I can. And… I love the place to death.”