Manchester United's Rashford deserves great credit for what he achieved this week

Manchester United's Rashford deserves great credit for what he achieved this week
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford succeeded in getting the UK government to extend its free school meal voucher scheme through the summer. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

A COUPLE of weeks back I wrote about the take-a-knee-protest by American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, as he tried to make the NFL and greater society aware of the injustices faced by black Americans at the hands of police forces nearly five years before the murder of George Floyd.

Unfortunately, much of the US, especially the powers that be from local government right up to the White House, ignored the message of his protest in favour of attacking Kaepernick himself and the temerity of this sportsman protesting injustice during a song.

Kaepernick's message came to mind again this week with Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford's open letter to British MPs urging the UK government to reconsider its decision not to extend its food voucher scheme into the school summer holidays.

The national voucher system was introduced in England back in March to help low-income families feed their children when schools were closed under lockdown measures during the coronavirus pandemic. The voucher worth £15 a week are eligible to the families of about 1.3m children in England who are on free school meals. However, the UK government announced earlier this month that the scheme would not run into the summer holiday period.

In Rashford's message, the striker pointed out that, "This is not about politics; this is about humanity. Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can't, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?"

Rashford's message offers a simple choice to make, one would think. Protecting children from hunger is surely be a simple priority everyone and every society would back and be a sure-fire victory in a political sense no matter what side of the spectrum you stand.

But in our polarised world, some political affiliates of the UK government expressed their concern that such a costly expense could not go on into the summer, preferring to ignore the outrageous reality of 1.3 million children going hungry while still rushing billions of pounds to prop up the stock markets.

This was shaping up to be another Kaepernick protest, where a simple message of social justice was egregiously conflated with political ideology, flagged as just another virtue-signalling exercise by a millionaire celebrity while ignoring the essential truth behind the needs of the people within the message.

Where Rashford's appeal differed from Kaepernick's protest was the rather poignant interview the England frontman gave to the BBC where he, as one of the highest-paid sportsmen in the world, told of his mother's struggle to keep food on the table, when he was a child, despite having a full-time job. Rashford remembered going to bed hungry but his mother always made sure they had something to eat, even if all they could afford was a single pot of yoghurt.

"My story to get here is all-too-familiar for families in England: my mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.

"As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches. Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us."

Rashford has backed up his words with actions too, helping to raise more than £20m with the charity organisation FareShare that assists families to get by during the lockdown.

But beyond the fundraising, it took a great degree of courage for Rashford to put his story out there, to inform the world of his own experience with poverty as a youth, when it could have been all so easy for him to keep his counsel and live off the proceeds of his now comfortable life.

It is admirable that he was willing to expose himself to the slings and arrows of the harsh political extremes that now exist in the UK where a compassionate viewpoint can be construed as some pinko-liberal attempt to give the undeserving another freebie.

Boris Johnson's government were forced into an embarrassing u-turn by Marcus Rashford's campaign. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Boris Johnson's government were forced into an embarrassing u-turn by Marcus Rashford's campaign. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire

For a while, it looked like the UK government were going to stand by their guns until the sheer swell of unpopular reactions on the mainstream, as well as social media, thanks to Rashford's response, made an embarrassing u-turn inevitable. It was another egg on the face moment for Boris Johnson's hopelessly ineffective handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and a credit to the majority of British people that they haven't totally lost their way in the post-Brexit culture and that a simple plea for hungry children to be fed can still react a humane and moral response.

As a Liverpool fan, I'm not a great admirer of Rashford's onfield efforts but he deserves huge applause for taking on the responsibility of actually putting his head above the gilded parapet of the professional athlete to demand what's right for those without a voice. To take on the establishment of a powerful government with an overwhelming comfortable majority and succeed in making them take an embarrassing step back. Something Labour has been unable to do for eight years.

While in Colin Kaepernick world it might be hard to see the fruits of the protest or the dissenting voice, let us hope that there is still a space beyond the field of play for a sportsman to use his fame and influence for what is a universal good.

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