Excluding Marcus Rashford Defeats the Whole Point of 'Sports Personality of the Year'

Oct 27, 2020, 2:49 PM GMT
Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford might be left off the 2020 BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist | Michael Regan/Getty Images

The clue is in the name.

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, while celebrating the best in sporting achievement that the UK has to offer, also means much more than just sport. The actual person should be celebrated as much as anything they have done in a sporting arena.

It is ‘Sports Personality of the Year’.

Rashford has done more in 2020 than any UK sportsperson | FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has been tipped by many to win this year’s award thanks to the stand he has taken against child food poverty and hunger throughout 2020.

Rashford, who knows all too well the pain of poor families struggling to get by and put enough food on the table, began by partnering with food charity FareShare in March when the coronavirus lockdown forced the closure of schools, denying children who relied on free school meals access to perhaps their only proper meal of the day.

His intention was to support and feed 400,000 children locally. By June, Rashford’s campaigning had done enough to raise £20m and provide around three million meals to vulnerable people nationally.

As summer approached, Rashford took his fight further, calling on the UK government to end child poverty in the country and extend the school meals programme during the six-week holidays so that children in need of help could still be fed.

In response to Rashford’s pleas, the government performed a U-turn, having earlier decided to end the scheme for the summer when schools would normally have been closed. It hammered home the reality that children in the UK are going hungry through no fault of their own or their parents.

Rashford has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester and an MBE for his campaigning, but forcing positive change and not awards is his motivation.

The 22-year-old went on to set up the Child Food Poverty Task Force and expressed his disappointment in the government’s response and attitude to the ongoing issue. With data revealing that 18% of children in the UK between the ages of eight and 17 suffer from food insecurity during school holidays, Rashford once more called on the government to act.

An opposition motion in parliament calling on the government to extend free school meals for the October half-term and covering holidays until Easter 2021 was defeated in a vote. Rashford criticised the outcome and responded by using his Twitter account to promote businesses, charities and local councils up and down the country offering their support and free food to children in need.

Quite frankly, Rashford has achieved far more than any UK sportsperson in 2020. That it has been away from the football pitch is irrelevant. Yet it has been reported that he will be omitted from the annual shortlist by the BBC because his accomplishments have not been in a 'sporting context'.

That cop-out, should it ring true when the shortlist is revealed next month ahead of the December ceremony, goes against what the award stands for.

Last year, the BBC published the criteria and terms and conditions for nominations for the 2019 awards. Presumably, they are a pretty standard set of rules that don’t change year to year, but there is little to nothing in them that should exclude Rashford in 2020.

‘This award goes to the sportsperson whose actions have most captured the UK public's imagination,’ the opening line reads. It does not specifically mention in a sporting environment.

Joe Calzaghe
BBC Sports Personality of the Year has been awarded annually since 1954 | John Gichigi/Getty Images

Further on, one of the specified criteria the panel selecting the shortlist will take into consideration was the ‘impact of the person's sporting achievement beyond the sport in question’. Rashford’s main achievements aren’t sporting, yet he has used his status as a nationally and internationally renowned sportsman as a platform to drive positive change in a vastly more meaningful way than had he simply scored a few more goals or lifted a trophy.

He has literally made an enormous impact beyond his sport. That, in this most unprecedented of years when there are far more important things at stake, is even more relevant than ever.

Yet also laid on in the terms and conditions is the following escape clause: “The Panel have the right to amend elements of this or other awards such as the criteria or numbers shortlisted, should a consensus view be reached - provided such changes remain within the spirit of the award.”

They can, if they wish, deliberately exclude Rashford because his achievements are not sporting. And yet, it very much feels as though that in itself is not in keeping ‘within the spirit of the award’.

Sadly, politics has taken over. Solving child hunger in the UK has been alarmingly divisive, as the overall response to the defeated motion to extend the school meals programme has shown.

Impartiality is crucial to the BBC as a state broadcaster, but it has gone too far. Because there are people who disagree with Rashford’s lobbying of the government to do something to end child food poverty in the UK, a nomination for the award off the back of his efforts could be perceived as a political endorsement, rather than simply a recognition of his good work.

It is a nonsense that blurs the real issue.

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