EVERY so often, sport hits the front pages not because of what’s happening on the field but rather, what’s happening off of it. This is what has occurred over the last few weeks in America; NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, has dominated the headlines for reasons that have little to do with American football. For the past few pre-season games, the 49ers quarterback has refused to stand for the US national anthem, saying: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

As you would expect, the response has been strong, with Clay Travis of Fox Sports calling Kaepernick “a f*****g idiot”. Kaepernick has turned into public enemy No.1, with the issue elevated to such prominence that even President Barack Obama was asked about it during his trip to China for the G20 summit.

Part of the backlash towards Kaepernick has been because some view his actions as disrespectful towards America’s military personnel. And some are kicking back because they deem the sports field as the wrong place to make a political protest. Others, however, have lauded Kaepernick for his actions and his attempts to bring the problems that America faces regarding race into the public eye.

The majority of sporting organisations, however, take a dim view of athletes making political statements on the field of play. Kaepernick’s may be the most recent but he is by no means alone: Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists in the Black Power salute when standing on the podium at the 1968 Olympics while Muhammad Ali refused to be enlisted into the US Army. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Games while Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title.

These sanctions did not discourage other athletes from bringing their political views onto the sports field though, with numerous examples occurring in the past few decades. As recently as the Rio Olympics, marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa from Ethiopia crossed his arms above his head as he finished second. He was protesting against the repressive Ethiopian regime and it was a show of solidarity towards the Oromo people.

Both Kaepernick and Lilesa have received countless messages of support in the past few weeks but again, there are some who maintain that the sports field is not an appropriate location for such political statements. It is a legitimate argument and until recently, I wholeheartedly agreed. Sport should, I believed, be kept separate from politics as much as possible and for athletes to consciously bring politics onto the field of play was inappropriate and unnecessary.

In recent months though, I have completely changed my point of view. Sport is not only an appropriate place to make political statements, but also an important place. There may be many who hold the belief that athletes should just shut up and play but severe double standards are in play here; sport has no inherent significance but we wilfully place weighty significance upon it. Why else would the Russian doping scandal make such global news? In the grand scheme of things, Russian athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs will not make the world a worse, or a more dangerous, place. But we have placed an importance upon sport that means that it does matter.

To suggest that athletes are there only to entertain and not to be heard is to insinuate that they are two-dimensional people who have no feeling or opinions off of the field. It reduces them to less than human beings; there would be no suggestion that policemen or firemen or teachers should not engage in peaceful protests, so why should athletes be made to refrain? It is naive to think that players are insulated from issues surrounding them just because they may earn millions of dollars for doing their job.

There seems to be something of an assumption that athletes lead a charmed life and therefore they should not express opinions. In a free country, this cannot be a fair request. For an athlete to make political statements is a brave move and it can be as serious as jeopardising their own safety; Lilesa has said that he feared for his life in the aftermath of his protest.

Until recently, athletes more often than not did not make political statements because they were almost certain to lose out on the endorsement front. But recent events have shown that athletes are willing to put their financial wellbeing – or even personal safety – at risk in order to do what they deem to be the right thing. Athletes incessantly glean plaudits for what they do on the field of play but it should be recognised that making political statements in the hope that they can make a real difference is far more worthy of praise.