There’s blood on the streets, tear gas in the air and Lewis Hamilton in the headlines. Black Lives Matter but why should the 35-year-old Formula One six-time world champion’s views concern anyone? Hamilton’s detractors – and he has many – are likely to roll their eyes at his contribution to the despair and uproar over George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minnesota policeman last week.
The Mercedes driver’s voice is worth listening to for a number of reasons. Sports, while superficially apolitical, throb with significance. They have been one of the biggest catalysts for social change in the past half century. In the United States and Europe, many of the most popular sports have a disproportionately high number of black athletes – in a similar manner to the way killings by police in America have a disproportionately high number of black victims. Minority success in areas like football, basketball, American football and athletics serve as a counterpoint to the failure of Bame candidates to reach the upper echelons in proportionate numbers in the majority of highly-paid non-sporting careers. Hamilton is a black man at the very top of his game, arguably the greatest driver in history.
Even more crucial is that the man from a humble background in Stevenage excels in an almost all-white industry that has traditionally been the playground of the wealthy. Hamilton has broken through more barriers than most.
Sports can be a double-edged sword for black athletes. One of the biggest components in racism, especially in the United States, is fear of black physicality. Bigots often claim that people with African heritage have a physical, animalistic advantage. In the bizarre world of racists whites developed the brains, blacks the brawn.
This warped ideological nonsense is destroyed by the likes of Hamilton. He is supremely fit but his success is built on intelligence and reflexes rather than power.
Being the best in the business has not won Formula One’s superstar the love of the public. There have been numerous articles written along the lines of ‘why do people hate Lewis Hamilton.’ Most of these pieces attempt to give considered, even sympathetic explanations for the antipathy. Few suggest that the underlying reason might be underpinned by racism.
Hamilton is the first motorsport personality to embrace the social media age and the snipers have used that against him. He is said to be too flashy. That is a common, coded criticism of top-class black sportsmen. Just ask Raheem Sterling. Conspicuous consumption seems far more irritating when conducted by someone from a minority background.
Like many other racing drivers – and captains of industry - he resides in tax exile in Monaco. He was also exposed as participating in a tax-avoidance scheme, along with numerous other famous people, including the Queen. The criticism in these areas is legitimate but rarely even-handed.
Up until now, Hamilton’s social media presence has been relatively uninteresting. He drew attention for posting and then deleting a message that appeared to support the return of grid girls and also pronounced that boys should not wear dresses after a nephew wore girl’s clothes. But calling out Formula One for its lack of response to George Floyd’s death has been Hamilton’s most memorable use of Instagram. It will form part of his legacy.
On the track he has been too dominant for many fans, even in the UK. This is a little surprising because people in this country do not normally get bored with British success. It is understandable that they got hacked off by Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles in the 1990s and 2000s but less comprehensible in Hamilton’s case.
He also has a reputation for being selfish and demanding – most top-class sportspeople are – but in attacking his own industry and President Trump he has stepped outside his comfort zone and provided leadership for others within Formula One. The younger drivers, mostly white and from privileged backgrounds, no longer have to question how appropriate it is for them to speak up. At a time when it is important for everyone to decide which side they are on, Hamilton encouraged and legitimised the words of the likes of Charles Leclerc, who admitted to being uncomfortable about speaking out on the subject but ended his contribution with the call to arms: “Don’t be silent.”
The finest sportsmen have had their legacy coloured by their response to events. Michael Jordan will forever regret his “Republicans buy sneakers, too” comment when he refused to publicly back Harvey Gantt to become the American South’s first black senator since the 19th century in an election against the segregationist Jesse Helms. The NBA’s greatest ever player has been vocal about recent events but it is too late to completely rehabilitate his reputation. Not everyone can be Muhammad Ali – who was reviled by large sections of the public during the 1960s and 70s – but sport cannot be immune to events in the wider world.
Jordan is, of course, American. Some might ask what events in the United States have to do with Hamilton. The answer is simple. Formula One is a global sport and the Englishman races there each year. His job takes him to a country where too many similar incidents to Floyd’s death have occurred. He has a right to be concerned.
In team sports, athletes from minority backgrounds have colleagues they can turn to and rely upon for support. Hamilton is the lone high-profile black voice in Formula One. Even for a world champion with his status, his statement was a brave move.
He is right. History will judge him well. When the moment came, Hamilton stood up and motivated others to join him. Black Lives Matter and the response of sports – even those that are not yet multiracial – matters too.