I was amused by the recent hullabaloo over whether athletes have a right to comment on controversial issues. There was something uniquely American about the controversy, for we are the rare nation that pretends that jocks must check their political leanings at the door. This concept must sound bizarre to the soccer fans of Brazil, where Corinthians and its star player, Sócrates, were instrumental in ending the country’s military dictatorship in the eighties.
As this (paywalled) 1989 article points out, Sócrates organized Corinthians’ supporters into a pro-democracy movement by leveraging his own athletic value:
Much was at stake in the 1982 club elections, and the opposing sides knew it…Sócrates, a lanky, bearded medical doctor, captain of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup team, and the Corinthians star player, issued a stern ultimatum: He would retire from soccer if “Order and Truth” won.
Sócrates’ gambit worked that time, but his results two years later were disappointing—perhaps because his new threat lacked a severe edge:
Corinthian Democracy reached its peak at the April 1984 free-election rally
in Sâo Paulo. The rally was held just a few days before the scheduled Congressional vote on the constitutional amendment to re-establish free elections in the nation. Sócrates, speaking before some 500,000 people, pledged that, if the amendment passed, he would refuse a million-dollar offer to play in Italy and stay in Brazil to participate in the rebuilding of democracy. His gesture was criticized as demagogic, but it was absolutely consistent with the spirit of Corinthian Democracy.
As things turned out, the free-election amendment did not pass.
More on Sócrates’ political career here. Disagree with his mildly extortionate methods if you like, but you must give him credit for risking everything for a righteous cause.
(Image via In Bed with Maradona)