England football star Marcus Rashford is used to hogging back page headlines for his exploits for his club Manchester United and the country’s national team.
This week he found himself on the front pages after successfully campaigning for 1.3 million children in England to claim free school meal vouchers from the government during their summer holidays.
He has already helped raise £20 million (Sh2.7 billion) for the anti-hunger charity FareShare since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak to provide three million such meals.
What caught the eye in the Rashford case is the fact that he was driven by personal experience, having been a beneficiary of free meals himself as a child growing up in a poor neighbourhood in south Manchester, while his single mother toiled away to afford one meal a day for her five children.
Rashford laid bare his experience in an emotional open letter to British MPs outlining the need for the school feeding programme to extend into the summer months, this after British Premier Boris Johnson had declined to do so.
The letter brought a change of heart in the government, opening the door to the £120 million (Sh16 billion) summer voucher plan that will, in the words of Rashford, give the vulnerable families one less thing to worry about amid crippling job losses in Britain. The voucher scheme in England works out at about £15 (Sh2,000) a week per child.
Rashford has never sought to run away from his experiences growing up, like many are wont to do when success finally arrives.
In order to garner support for his cause, he explained in honest detail how his family depended on food banks, breakfast clubs and kind actions of neighbours and his youth team coaches to fill in the missing meals.
Eventually, when the Coviod-19 demon has been slayed and life goes back to normal—or a new normal— the Rashford campaign will be seen as a seminal moment in the way sports stars leverage their considerable celebrity and reach for greater good.
Footballers in particular have been guilty of refusing to put themselves at the forefront of any public campaign that might upset their carefully managed careers and images.
They rely on image rights and sponsorship earnings to supplement their on-field earnings, and given the short lifespan of a football career, many would rather stick to issuing bland statements and self-promotion on social media in order to avoid upsetting the applecart.
It is particularly concerning that football has not tackled the issue of racism on its pitches beyond slap-of-the-wrist fines and stadium bans despite their players of colour getting racially taunted at many grounds across Europe and elsewhere.
It has taken the global Black Lives Matter campaign to force the game to act, but it can still learn a thing or two from the actions of Rashford and fellow black players in Europe, who have spoken strongly against racism in society.
The global sign of support of the Black Lives Matter is “taking the knee”.
Instructively, this form of protest was started by American football player Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the US national anthem before games in 2016 as a protest against police brutality and racism.
People sharing Kaepernick’s sentiments used him as a rallying point on how to articulate their displeasure with the system.
He has managed to get his voice heard by leading by example, forsaking the millions he would have earned by toeing the line in order to make his voice heard.
Top footballers like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentine Messi and Neymar Jnr of Brazil, boast hundreds of millions of social media followers due to the status of the sport as the most popular on the planet.
Leveraged for a social cause, this wide following can have a far -reaching impact, and their voices can open closed doors, like Marcus Rashford has shown.
Locally, there has been little in the way of social activism by our athletes in the past, with many preferring to make quiet investments in their businesses and fade away into the background once their moment in the limelight ends.
Eliud Kipchoge, considered by many to be the finest marathon runner of all time, has led the way in showing Kenyan stars that they can have an impact away from the track of the road.
While his “No Human is Limited” catchphrase has inspired many to push themselves further in pursuit of self-improvement, it is his actions at this time of Covid-19 that have revealed the power he wields as a philanthropist.
First, there was the drive to provide food for vulnerable athletes whose lifelines have been cut off by the pandemic, which he has now extended to providing food for vulnerable families in the country.
By lending his considerable fame and celebrity to the cause, he has encouraged companies, the government and foundations to donate food to those in need, showing that just like Rashford in the UK, sports stars can go beyond entertaining on the field to make a difference in society.