Marcus Rashford, our first activist super player. Credit: Michael Regan/Getty

December 22, 2020   6 mins

Until recently, the English did not expect much from their footballers. They never thought they’d see them do anything as heartwarming as Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children, broadcast last night on BBC One. In the noughties, they were tragic heroes, with an emphasis, strongly placed, on the tragedy rather than the heroism. Back then, English footballers were greedy, horny and vulgar. They were a gift to comedians and red-top editors, and a reliable disgrace to their country. Their real game was scandal, not football. Tumbling out of nightclubs, having affairs, selling the FA out to the ‘Fake Sheikh’ — that was just Sven-Göran Eriksson, England’s manager at the time.

Was there a nadir? Was it the WAG parade at the World Cup in 2006, when Victoria Beckham drank bottles of Veuve Clicquot through a straw? (“We became a bit of a circus,” one player sagely reminisced a few years later.) Was it Ashley Cole’s admission, in 2006, that he nearly “swerved off the road” with anger when Arsenal offered him a new contract with a £55,000 weekly wage? Perhaps it was Wayne Rooney’s “romp with a granny” — or was it a naked Frank Lampard, jeering at grieving Americans in a Heathrow hotel bar on September 13, 2001? England expected that most footballers would try and sleep with their teammate’s wife.

That was off the pitch. On the field, if you can endure the recollection, they were even worse. England played like a scratch team dredged from the remedial unit of a Victorian institution. They burned up at tournaments in 2004, 2006 and 2010. They didn’t even qualify for Euro 2008. The game, through the Premier League, had never been more lucrative. The reputation of its players had never been lower. In a strange way it was appropriate. If England’s footballers were hideous in the 2000s, it was because England was. If they were trashily materialistic, it was because England was too. They were no better, and not much worse, than anyone else in public life at the time. That was the tragedy. “Morally corrupt” was how a group of bishops described the New Labour years in 2008. God only knows what the Right Reverends would have thought if they’d seen Footballers’ Wives.

Now the face of football is changing. England’s players are a source of pride rather than embarrassment. In 2018, led by Gareth Southgate, their impeccable manager, they reached the semi-finals of the World Cup — a moment of full-spectrum, flags-out, boozy national unity that most fans, inured to washout after washout, never thought they’d experience. Success brought English players an earned prestige, even an authority, that they hadn’t enjoyed since Italia ‘90. No more tragedy. They were just heroes. What would they do with it?

The answer, at least partially, lies in an office on Great Titchfield Street, Fitzrovia. That’s where Roc Nation Sports International’s headquarters is based. Founded in 2008 by Jay Z, Roc Nation has since washed into every cove in the modern entertainment industry. They manage artists and athletes, produce TV shows and films, and run a music label. Team Roc, a division within the company, is dedicated to efforts around social justice: bailing out BLM protestors in America this summer, offering pro-bono legal support for their families, creating buzzy media campaigns, and leveraging Roc Nation’s impressive celebrity roster to boost stories.

Their work blurs the lines between politics and sport, entertainment and activism. “We don’t consider ourselves a traditional agency — we really are a movement,” Roc Nation Sports International’s president Michael Yormark told the Telegraph in June.

The movement found a standard bearer in Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, who became one of Roc Nation’s European clients earlier this year. An icon of the 2018 World Cup, and a courageous high-pressure penalty taker, Rashford grew up in a single-parent family in Wythenshawe. When he heard that schools would be closing as part of the wider national lockdown in March, Rashford, who’d relied on free lunch programmes as a child, turned to Kelly Hogarth, his personal publicist, and VP of strategic communications at Roc Nation Sports International — what could they do to help poor children secure vital meals?

Even hermits know what happened next. Rashford’s — and Hogarth’s — free school meals campaign, mammothly popular and relentlessly sincere, forced the Government into two U-turns. ‘RASHERS FOR PM’, screamed the Daily Star, one of dozens of headlines he made over the summer, then the autumn. Old media was full of sympathetic interviews with Rashford, or commentators, such as Matthew Parris, who were scared of criticising the campaign, for fear of sounding mean. Who, after all, wanted children to go hungry in a plague year?

Only monsters: when the Daily Mail tried to peg Rashford as a hypocrite for owning multiple homes, it was like watching a giraffe try to ride a bicycle. When you own new media as much as Rashford does — with 900,000 more followers than Boris Johnson on Twitter — attacks from mere newspapers don’t work. Alongside Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings, who both campaigned for BLM after the death of George Floyd, Rashford was suddenly leading a generation of politically self-aware England players. The normally sedate New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, called them — without mentioning the squadrons of PR flacks writing their tweets — “activist super players”.

Footballers, not poets, became England’s unacknowledged legislators. Rashford received an MBE, and millions of school children received lunch.

Traditional broadcast and print media never did more than boost Rashford’s signal. The narrative was too sexy — star footballer routs out of touch toffs at the top — for them to attempt anything else. To understand what was interesting about Rashford, and by extension Roc Nation, you had to go to the trade press, and media companies which focused on sports PR. The Rashford campaign was the subject of huge features in AdWeek and SportsPro, and he won PR Week’s “Communicator of The Year” award. What earned Rashford praise from them wasn’t feeding children. It was the exciting way Roc Nation has fused social justice and sport in order to boost Rashford’s profile, the better for him to serve as a conduit for digital marketing operations, the spread of branded content, and the sale of boxfresh trainers.

The bottom line wasn’t doing good; the bottom line, as SportsPro noted, was that during the campaign, Rashford’s Twitter following had grown by 65%, whereas the total social following of Manchester United — which hasn’t run any political campaigns this summer — had grown a sluggish 8% in the same period. Simon Oliveira, a long-term advisor to David Beckham, labelled Roc Nation’s efforts “genius”.

For experienced sports marketeers like Oliveira, Rashford’s campaign set a new precedent. During Beckham’s glory days, the most social justice a player would indulge in might involve being chauffeured, blatantly hungover, to a children’s hospital to sign autographs, or to a community centre to cut a ribbon. Nobody cared what Gary Neville thought about child tax credits. Complicated policy matters were for Oliver Letwin or David Laws or Ed Balls to work out. Roc Nation and Rashford changed all that. “The barriers have been well and truly broken,” Oliveira wrote over the summer. “Top-athletes, and the organisations they represent, can collectively reach more people than almost any politician and connect.”

The next horizon stretches beyond Rashford. His authenticity, precisely calibrated by the 20 “subject-matter experts” who work for Roc Nation in that Fitzrovia office, is rare. As the first “activist super player” to cut through with the public, Rashford was able to give the impression of spontaneity, relatability and unfilteredness prized by PR world, whatever the contrary reality. Other PR firms will go further than Roc Nation, and take stands on issues with far less room for consensus than feeding hungry children during a pandemic.

This represents an enormous shift away from sport as it was traditionally understood in England. It would be wrong to say that sport was apolitical, but it has rarely been a space for activism. According to the historian Derek Birely in Sport and The Making of Britain, sport had a “chauvinistic” side, but its role lay in “providing a safety valve, escape, sublimation, [and] socially acceptable outlets” for aggression. For Robert Colls, in This Sporting Life: Sport & Liberty in England 1760-1960, sport was defined by “knowing that not everyone is political”.

That knowledge is being replaced with the more contentious model of player-activism found in American sports. English football is already embroiled in a domestic culture war over the practice of “taking the knee” in support of BLM, and an international culture war over the Premier League’s “Rainbow Laces” campaign against homophobia. Perennial plans — looking ever more likely to come to fruition — for a European Super League will cement the game’s money-making capabilities, while severing the connection between England’s biggest clubs and their localities.

The four divisions of English football were always a parody of the class system; if the top clubs jet off, it will mirror the growth of our own transnational elite, who, like Manchester United, would rather play in Milan than Middlesbrough. Look on the bright side: United will be able, finally, to compete with the Dallas Cowboys for overseas markets on a more equal footing.

Top players in such a system will be like the American celebrities repped by Roc Nation. Extraordinarily wealthy and influential, but blandly removed from the audiences they sell their apparel and their opinions too. Maybe it will be then, when Jack Grealish is co-hosting a podcast with Greta Thunberg, or Mason Greenwood is co-authoring a popular book about antiracism with Reni-Eddo Lodge, that fans will feel a touch — just a breath — of nostalgia for Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole. They were not good men, but at least their cynicism was genuine.