A Declaration of Rights for Athletes — its long overdue!

This morning, I presented a webinar as part of the Ali Center 4th Annual Athletes and Social Change Forum, held online.  What follows is my suggested framework for  a Declaration of Rights for Athletes. (its long, but I hope you’ll enjoy the paper).

A Declaration for Human Rights in Sports would be a tremendous accomplishment. An even greater accomplishment would be if sport were to honour human rights in its practices and operating principles world-wide. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the member states of the United Nations in 1948, was the outcome of the horrors of the Second World War. The world recognized that we need an aspiration, a set of guiding principles, to set a standard for human behavior and institutional practices. The fact that that standard has not been honoured consistently in any country in the world, ever since, is not a reason to shy away from setting the standard.

Aspiration plays a critical role in human behavior (or so say the behavior theorists). We know from experience the role that aspiration plays in sport – who among us has not practiced visualization before a competition? You cannot achieve what you cannot dream, as they say.

So, let’s spend the next two days putting a framework around our shared aspiration for a sport system that ensures the human rights of the athlete. I think that my role this morning is to set the stage for these discussions, so I will do my best to do so with a bit of background and a few foundational questions.

I’ve worked on a few projects to further athletes’ rights over the last almost four decades……as a young athlete it had never occurred to me that sport was anything other than a level playing field. After all, sport is about rules, the rules apply to all, what could be the problem? Then I moved from the 400m to the racewalk, and my world view changed. I discovered that the womens racewalk was not an Olympic event when I won the Trials in 1980 – the men were going to the Olympics (they didn’t in the end because of the boycott – which is another rights issue), but the women weren’t.

That’s what got me started. I imagine that everyone attending this conference has a personal starting point when we experienced a disregard for our own rights, and discovered that we were not alone. I led an international campaign for the women’s racewalk, that finally became an Olympic event for women in 1992. In the meantime, I had become pregnant and lost my financial support because Sport Canada viewed pregnancy as “a conscious attempt to undermine one’s high performance status”. On how many levels is that wrong in fact, and horrifying on a policy level? I brought a claim before the Canadian Human Rights Commission and won – pregnancy is now treated as is any long-term absence from competition. Funding continues as long as the athlete is taking steps to return.

Beyond my small world, we know that these abuses continue – the Sochi Games threatened homosexual athletes directly; in Canada a Sikh boxer had to go to the Human Rights Commission because amateur boxing prohibits fighting with a beard (did you know that?); in Quebec young women were prohibited from playing soccer while wearing a headscarf; the Australian Supreme Court ruled recently that male and female athletes must receive equal funding and opportunities from the sport federations (the case that precipitated this occurred when the mens basketball team was flown first class to London 2012 while the women flew cattle class, yet won the gold, while the men finished way back – although the differing results really shouldn’t have had to have any relevance); Canada’s womens rugby team still experiences very discriminatory access to funds from their federation despite Sport Canada rules and their far greater success; the recent resignation of Raymond Moore as director of the Indian Wells tournament (I suppose its progress that he had to resign); athletes with disabilities compete in the well-hidden Paralympics – why cant the Olympics and Paralympics be integrated as they are in Ontario high school competitions, at least in track and field?; and on and on we go.

The lack of respect for the human rights of athletes are well-known and well catalogued. And the result is that people are not enabled to achieve their best in sport for reasons that have nothing to do with their own abilities, and everything to do with the human proclivity to discriminate and stereotype, and to use our own prejudices to limit others.

What’s that about? POWER POWER POWER And identity.

Human beings discriminate against people who are not like them because we do not like to share power. In sport, we like to limit the right to win, and the glory that goes with it, to people like us, or like we imagine ourselves to be. The old amateur rules limited sport to the moneyed classes by prohibiting anyone to make money from sport, only those who already had money could take the time to train. Men like to own sport – they still do, at least in North America where there is almost no coverage of womens sport in the media (I didn’t even know the women also play March Madness, for example). The Paralympic sports are almost invisible, and, when visible, people can be patronizing when watching, focusing on a person ‘overcoming’ a disability, rather than on the athlete in that person. A wheelchair is not a sob story – it is a tool. Just as are a pair of shoes. But the power equation is serious. People do not easily relinquish power. The profile of the people who govern sport is not reflective of the diversity in sport.

I also find that people in power confuse merit with the status quo.

Going into this conference, I suggest that we need to develop both a framework for athletes rights, and a strategy for implementation. I think the latter task is going to be much more difficult, and should inform the former.

With this in mind, my first question is to ask whether we are creating a declaration of the rights of an athlete, as an athlete, or as a human being who happens to be an athlete? I ask because I have in mind that athletes are denied the use of our platform in sport to express ourselves politically. (The right to political expression is protected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) In these cases, we may or may not have experienced a violation of our rights in the practice of our sport, but we are being denied our right to expression as human beings.

One of the most powerful examples of this is the short-lived Olympic Project for Human Rights, that was explicitly about power. When John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists, they were expressing their human right to political expression, standing up for the rights of African-Americans, and using their platform as medal-winning Olympians to do so. They were vilified by the IOC, which forced the USOC to expel them from the team or lose its status, with the claim that the Olympics are apolitical. But, the boycotts have taught us otherwise, as has the very behavior of the IOC.

That’s because human behavior is rarely apolitical. Every person is a bundle of values, beliefs, assumptions and biases. No one is neutral – even in claimed neutrality lies a political statement. Not everyone will agree with that position, however, it remains that athletes are prohibited from political expression during a sporting event. Is this something we agree with?

My second question is somewhat dependent on the response to the first. Is our declaration of human rights in sport intended to go further than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Or is it an explicit subset of those rights? Is its function to affirm those universal rights, to add to them, to focus in on those areas most applicable to sport practice? Or otherwise? In other words, what most concerns this group? Our legal rights as human beings who happen to be athletes? Or, those legal rights as they apply in the sporting arena? Our economic rights? Athletes are usually required to sign away our own image and the intellectual property that flows therefrom, often (usually) without adequate compensation. In North America we tend to shy away from collective labour rights, but we may do so at our own peril. The professional sports have their own unions – the Players Associations. We have no one to represent ‘amateur’ athletes’ interests in any country that I know of.

Finally, who cares? Athletes tend to be viewed as a privileged sub-class. When we founded the Athletes Association in Canada it was intended to be our players association, an independent voice and actor, but that changed. The power of the sport organizations and of the government felt too great to shift significantly, and we became a fairly minor voice over time. Public sympathies do not tend to rest with athletes. Perhaps rightly.

How will we bring attention to our declaration? How will we make the case for human rights to those with the power to protect and honour those rights? How will we act on violations of those rights? Where are our allies around the world? Are they only in sport? Lets examine more closely the work of Human Rights Watch, for example – could we work with them to bring a test case before the international courts? Their challenge to the FIVB to deny Iran the right to host beach volleyball unless women were allowed to watch made headlines.

Can sport shift from a regressive to a progressive stance on human rights? Could a condition of hosting, for which nations bid and which is considered a PR coup, be conditional on respect for human rights? What if the IOC had pulled the Games from Sochi after Putin’s threats against homosexuals? How are we going to measure our progress towards human rights in sport? I am quite sure that you have all asked yourselves these questions and more, indeed, I expect that we discuss questions like this daily among ourselves. We now have two days to learn and to advance the case for human rights in sport, and to make sure that what we do has a life beyond this conference.