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The English Premier League is still deliberating whether to punish Nikolas Anelka for his "quenelle" goal celebration on Saturday, when the West Bromwich striker marked his achievement with a salute considered by many in France to be Anti-Semitic. Anelka tweeted that the gesture was "a dedication to Dieudonne" – the French comedian who invented the salute and has been convicted seven times by French courts of racial incitement.
Taking the above into consideration, it would not be unreasonable to ban Anelka from several games, thus sending a message that anti-Semitism, in any shape or form, will not be tolerated.
On the other hand, it is quite possible that Anelka's intention was not at all anti-Semitic but rather, a display of anti-establishment sentiment – motivation that in itself should not merit punishment.
Furthermore, in this multimillion dollar, over-commercialized industry of professional sports, one could choose to appreciate an athlete brave enough to "speak his mind" against the "establishment".
The role of professional sports in modern society is dual: It is very much a money-motivated world, but at the same time, many sports teams are authentic representations of different communities, and as such, are a source of identification and civic bonding for millions across the world.
Sports fans not only identify with their chosen teams, but also worship their favorite players. They expect more from their athlete idols than just to score goals or shoot baskets. Many sports fans regard their "heroes" as role models to such an extent that the athletes' personal opinions and views influence and shape their own.
Most star athletes seem to be aware of this tendency to idolize them and are actually afraid of it. If, in the past, we had athletes like Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown, who paid a significant professional and financial price for publicly stating their views against the Vietnam War and social injustice in America, today almost all athletes shy away from any controversial or polarizing statement.
Michael Jordan, the world's most famous basketball player and an American icon, was asked two decades ago why he never expressed his opinions on local politics: "Because Republicans also buy my sneakers," was his answer.
In Europe, as well, we hardly hear soccer stars who say anything meaningful on the world outside of sports, despite the fact that many of them grew up in poverty and must have some pointed opinions about their country's society and financial systems. Yet, we do not hear their views on these issue. The obvious reason is money – the money from the corporations that pay the athletes' salaries and from the middle and upper class consumers who buy their products.
Racism, an acute social phenomenon that many of the players have personally experienced, is another rarely tackled issue, perhaps because athletes in Europe and America understand it will make them less marketable and less desirable in the eyes of the rich clubs and adoring fans.
Today's money-oriented world of professional sports has turned into an entertainment industry, offering another form of escapism while allowing the ruling classes to maintain their dominance over the addicted masses.
We can only imagine the positive influence that internationally famous footballer Lionel Messi could wield if he were to speak up about social issues in Argentina and South America; if golfer Tiger Woods would challenge American cutthroat capitalism; or if a certain Italian soccer star would "come out of the closet" and become a public advocate of gay rights.
But it is all wishful thinking. Sports stars are as detached and as indifferent as can be.
It is thus of utmost importance when one of them does stand up for what he believes and tries to influence other people. It is a pity that Anelka chose to publicly express his opinions with the offensive "quenelle" salute.