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Does activism diminish athletes’ performance?

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Gus Martins
Does activism diminish athletes’ performance?

English soccer for generations has leveled the playing field for impoverished youth who have gone on to earn multimillion-pound salaries, while enhancing both the Premier League and English National Team.

And some of those players — Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling — have intrepidly used their platform to wade into the polarizing waters of social justice and political causes.

Rashford famously helped spotlight the plight of poor children unable to get school lunches during the COVID-19 lockdowns. He was said to help raise 20 million pounds to keep the programs funded during summer vacation.

Rashford is one of five children raised by a single working mother. Also affiliated with Black Lives Matter UK, he says he benefitted from meals he received during his early years in school.

A young star who came through the Man United youth development academy, having made his Man United debut during the 2015-2016 season, the 24-year-old has mainly flourished since reaching the top club at just 18 years old.

But in the never-static world of English soccer, Rashford has hit a massive speed bump this season, bringing into question whether political activism has thrown him off his lucrative soccer career.

With a mere four goals and two assists this season in 19 appearances (10 starts), his production has tailed off markedly. He’s been feeling the sting of criticism by fans and media, and hardcore complaints by the louts and borderline hooligans.

Steve Nicol, former Liverpool star and decade-long coach of the New England Revolution, thinks it’s possible Rashford might be over-reaching in his still nascent career.

“I would think absolutely for someone in their early 20s to mid-20s trying to do two things at such a level, there’s going to be some sort of compromise somewhere,’’ said Nicol. “If you play for Manchester United, that’s supposed to be atop of the Premier League, in my opinion, you need to eat, sleep and drink it. And when your mind’s pulled to other places, your complete focus can’t be on it.’’

Nicol, a talk-show pundit at ESPN for many years now, said Rashford is generally considered a young man of strong values and high quality, but his off-field undertakings might just be too much to handle.

“As good as what he was doing for his cause, I think it’s impossible not to take away from what it takes when you are at the highest level,’’ he said. “And I think his football suffered.’’

Nicol mentioned two other players once flying high in their clubs and internationally with England who have leveled off markedly in their careers.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Look at (former Tottenham star) Dele Alli,’’ Nicol said. “He started doing some brand nonsense and his performance tailed off. I mean Jesse Lingard is the same. Jesse Lingard was in the Manchester United team, and he started doing some clothes wear and stuff, and then he ends up not playing either. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. When your focus is taken in two different directions, then something is going to suffer.’’

Liverpool’s Sterling, who at his top form clearly rose to superstar level, was criticized early on for having a tattoo of a handgun on one thigh. He said it was there as a reminder of his dad, who was killed by gunfire when the player was just a toddler back in Jamaica.

To this day, he points proudly to his mother, who immigrated to England and took care of her young family, giving him the chance to a meteoric rise in English football.

The players today are highly paid. Each team in the Premier League gets nearly $200 million per season as a share of television rights, before counting ticket sales, local media deals and lucrative international licensing. Not to mention super-rich ownership.

Even the three last-place finishers that are relegated to the second division get a “parachute” payment of the same amount for the next season to help prevent an exodus of players who want to land with another Premier League team.

Rashford has 58 goals in the Premier League and is closing in on 100 in all competitions. His talent is unquestioned, and he has justified his roughly $13 million annual salary.

With United signings in the last several seasons of veteran center forwards Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo, he has been pushed to the wing. Nicol thinks he’s an out-and-out striker and that has hurt his performance.

But last summer’s missed penalty attempt — one of three misses — vs. Italy in the European Championship final game, which cost England the title, had a lasting impact.

In that finale, English coach Gareth Southgate, in the biggest moment for English soccer since winning the World Cup in 1966, picked three of his youngest players — Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka — to take three of the five kicks.

To make matter worse, Rashford and Sancho were inexplicably substituted in at the bitter end of the second overtime without ever having felt any of the game’s adrenaline or energy. Rashford hit a post, but the other two players’ shots were saved.

The players, all Black, were lambasted, in some cases with hateful racial epithets. Many English citizens harshly railed against the vitriol, coming to the support of the young players. The incident did raise the specter of whether the criticism was somewhat a pushback against “woke” mentality taken on by some players today that can be seen as divisive in already complex societies.

“I would say the only people having a go at him are nut jobs,’’ Nicol said. “There are always nut jobs. Even when he was doing well there were people having a go at him.’’

Saka and Sancho are having good seasons, and Sancho, a huge Man United signing from German club Dortmund, seems to have re-adapted to English soccer. Since working his way into a starter, ironically, he has taken playing time away from Rashford.

The Manchester United team has undergone a topsy-turvy era since the retirement in 2013 of legendary manager Alex Ferguson. Ferguson won 13 Premier League titles and maintained an unwavering control over a team that throughout the years had countless alpha-male performers with difficult personalities to harness.

That lack of stability in the coaching ranks has affected United. Since Ferguson’s retirement after 20 years in charge, the team has floundered under coaches David Moyes, Ryan Giggs, Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and now Ralf Rangnick.

“Alex Ferguson keeps you on your toes every day,’’ Nicol said. “The same with Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool. If they see that you’ve dropped your standards, whether at a game or in training, they’d come and tell you.’’

Nicol said Rashford has everything it takes to get back to building a great career. He would have to, considering England constantly produces promising young players.

“I would certainly say that Rashford has got a good character,’’ he said. “I think that he’s at his best for United and England when he was playing through the middle, and not on the wing. He’s got pace and he can finish. If he can get a settled mind, a settled team, a settled way of playing, he’s good enough to come back.’’

manchester united, Marcus Rashford, soccer