‘I cannot shed my skin’: When sport, the personal and the political collide


The big issues came out to play in sport this week: race, freedom of expression, sexuality and personal liberty.

Now, I realise that there is a cohort of people who’ve already decided they’ve seen enough at the first paragraph and know this piece isn’t for them.

After all, “Sport and politics don’t mix, mate”.

It’s an old adage that refuses to die.

However, this week delivered possibly the most eloquent denunciation of that adage, from the Zimbabwean cricket commentator and former player, Pommie Mbangwa.

“Excuse me for being political, because some will say it’s political, but I cannot shed my skin,” Mbangwa said.

Mbangwa, who is black, was discussing the decision by South Africa’s wicketkeeper/batter and former captain, Quinton de Kock, to sit out a match in the T20 World Cup, rather than take a knee against racism, as he was told to do by Cricket South Africa (CSA).

His comments were made in a vacuum — de Kock was yet to explain his reasons — but the internal logic was still valid.

Mbangwa’s comment was political, and it cut straight to the point.

Can there be a more coherent summation of how the personal and the political are inexorably intertwined as “I cannot shed my skin”?

Mbangwa was speaking in the immediate aftermath of the news breaking of de Kock’s decision to stand down.

It was a response to an edict delivered by CSA just hours before the team was due to take the field.

An optical illusion of a young woman and an old woman
The famous optical illusion that depicts both an old woman looking off to the left and a young woman facing away, looking over her right shoulder.(Image credit: Public domain)

Trying to break down the rights and wrongs of the situation is a bit like viewing the famous illusion which at one moment is a young woman and the next an old one.

In a statement, CSA explained its position saying, “The Board felt that it was imperative for the team to be seen taking a united and consistent stand against racism, especially given SA’s history”.

Mbangwa reflected that thinking in his comments.

“I speak because the team concerned is South Africa, with a history of exclusion and racism,” he said.

Remember, this is a cricket board which has mandated quotas for selecting a certain number of players who are people of colour and black Africans in recognition of the country’s history and an attempt to give opportunities to players who might otherwise be overlooked because of disadvantage.

In those terms, it seems perfectly reasonable that South Africa, of all cricketing nations, asks its players to take a united stand on a universally recognised anti-racism gesture.

We now know why Quinton de Kock refused to take part in the gesture.

In a statement that began with an apology, he explained that he came from a mixed race family and was taught that “the rights and equality of all people is more important than any individual”.

He said he felt his rights were taken away when he was “told what we had to do in the way that we were told”.

A South African male batter looks to his right as he walks off the field.
Quinton de Kock says he feels the gesture had no meaning when it was given as an order.(Getty: Dan Mullan)

Again, perfectly fair: As a cricketer, de Kock is paid to score runs and catch the ball, it is not unreasonable to ask why making a political statement was part of the job, regardless of whether the statement was based on the safest of moral grounds: opposition to racism.

As it is, de Kock said he was “deeply sorry for all the hurt, confusion and anger that I have caused”.

He also said being called a racist hurt him deeply.

He has had an “emotional” chat with the CSA board and said: “If me taking a knee helps to educate others, and makes the lives of others better, I am more than happy to do so.”

In that statement, de Kock is accepting that simply to be a part of a mixed-race cricket team in a mixed-race nation is a political statement in itself, as it is for every member of the South African team.

Moreover, he’s accepted that he has some political power as an agent of change.

Josh’s courage

The Adelaide United footballer, Josh Cavallo made an enormous personal decision when he decided to come out this week.

That he is one of the very, very few top-flight professional male players to come out makes his decision a powerful political statement as well.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Play Video. Duration: 2 minutes 9 seconds

Adelaide United player Josh Cavallo comes out as gay

“I hope to touch the hearts of the people around the world and to show that there are people dealing with this matter and people are struggling all around the world and no one realises,” Cavallo told ABC Sport.

He has touched hearts.

He’s already received an outpouring of support from international football superstars, celebrities and the game’s governing body, FIFA.

“Growing up, I always felt the need to hide myself, you know, because I was ashamed,” he said on the video which announced his coming out.

“I’m tired of trying to perform at the best of [my] ability and to live this double life. It’s exhausting. It’s something I don’t want anyone to experience,” he said.

It’s a hugely courageous decision for so many reasons, not the least of which is Cavallo has effectively signed up to be the spokesman for gay sportspeople any time there is a story and a journalist is seeking a comment.

And it’s a position the former Rugby League player Ian Roberts has been in for 26 years, as the only elite gay footballer to have come out in Australia.

And, so, Roberts, of all people, knows that Cavallo — in making the decision to come out — has also made an enormous political statement for gay people.

“He’s quite literally going to save lives,” Roberts told ABC Sport.

Cavallo finds himself in the same position as Pommie Mbangwa.

His sexuality is a fundamental part of who he is and by pretending otherwise, he wasn’t being the person he wanted to be.

He cannot shed his skin.

What we do have a choice over 

What of Novak Djokovic and the tennis players around the world who either haven’t been vaccinated or aren’t willing to disclose their vaccination status?

This week saw another domestic political squabble over whether those players will be allowed into the country to play in The Australian Open.

The Prime Minister opened the door — directly contradicting his Immigration Minister, Alex Hawke — by saying unvaccinated people could get exemptions to come to Australia if they did two weeks’ quarantine.

Unfortunately for the PM, his power ends at the border, and Victoria’s Premier, Dan Andrews, pretty quickly put a kybosh on the whole idea, ruling out unvaccinated players making an appearance at the Open.

So, Novak Djokovic and friends have a choice to make: What do they value more — individual liberty or the rules set in place for public health reasons?

It’s a question any unvaccinated person could arguably ponder because, by remaining unvaccinated, they are potentially placing more pressure on the public health system, clogging hospital beds and putting other people in danger.

It’s an issue that goes beyond the individual and has an effect on the whole society.

Maybe there was a distant time when sport and politics didn’t need to mix.

But now, the decisions athletes make have to be seen in the context of a much broader stage: the society we all live in.


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