Design by Mellisa Lee

On Oct. 31, soccer star Marcus Rashford celebrated his 24th birthday. The Englishman — who plays for Manchester United, one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world  — is a recognizable figure for anyone who follows the sport.

If you’re wondering what he is doing in the Digital Culture section of The Daily, I don’t blame you. But it’s not his soccer skills that bring him to our neck of the woods; it’s his use of social media. The diffusion of social media in our society has meant two things for popular figures like Rashford: a chance to communicate openly with fans and a platform to inspire genuine change. In his short career, not only has Rashford shown that he understands the privileged position he is in, but that he has used social media to make a difference.

Rashford started playing for his boyhood club at 7 and made his way up the youth ranks to feature for the senior team, the one that plays in front of 80,000 people every weekend, at the age of 17. As his on-field performances surpassed expectation after expectation after expectation, his stature within the Manchester community grew, quickly becoming a fan favorite. However, as his following multiplied, there were some (the media) who were quick to notice four particularly important things about the man: He is Black, young, Northern and successful. For many (the media), those were reason enough to ensure that whatever he did, he was always in their firing line. Undeterred and unbothered, Rashford gave back to his community, first with small acts before graduating to bigger, more formal charity.

Flash to March 19, 2020: a day before all schools in the United Kingdom would close following the spread of COVID-19. The closure meant that almost half a million children would lose access to necessary meals, and thus began Rashford’s unrelenting fight against child poverty and hunger in the UK. Although impossible to summarize well, what followed was a journey so remarkable that it prompted Barack Obama himself to say, “Marcus is way ahead of where I was at 23.” What’s special is that every step, every sharp turn and steep uphill of Rashford’s journey has been recorded on social media for everyone to see. From working with NGOs that distribute food to inciting change in government policies, Rashford achieved unprecedented success from within the four walls of his home.  

It wasn’t smooth sailing in the beginning; government officials and citizens alike questioned Rashford’s authority in the situation. After all, what does a soccer star know about the pressures of dealing with a pandemic and solving problems like child hunger? His efforts to be heard were instantly shut down by the infamous “stick to football” cliché. But Rashford kept at it.

Rashford called on restaurants and cafés all across the country to provide free meals and tweet their details using the hashtag #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY. Rashford then retweeted each of the seemingly endless responses, careful to make sure that none were missed. I personally remember waking up every morning and seeing my Twitter feed filled with random restaurant names from the UK. 

His actions were extremely visible and in-your-face, but that was what it took for people to understand the importance of his work. Slowly, Rashford gained the support of the public, who began to acknowledge both the immense amount of change enacted and the human being behind it. This wasn’t just a PR stunt or a charade to boost his public image — Rashford truly cared. With every passing tweet, people realized that Rashford spoke not only for himself, but for millions of hungry children across the country. Every word he tweeted was filled with the emotion only a person who faced poverty and hunger in his childhood can have. The credibility and sensitivity in his words and actions touched hearts across the world such that the next time he was attacked or belittled by a government official, everybody, from rival clubs to colleagues, had his back.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Rashford’s social media campaign was how he engineered government reversals regarding free school meal vouchers, a scheme that ensured that children who depended on meals provided by their schools would not lose access to them upon schools shutting down across the country due to the pandemic. An initiative put in place by the UK government from March until the end of the academic year in May, this was an essential step toward the survival of countless children in the UK. Twice Boris Johnson and his cabinet tried to end the voucher scheme, and twice they had to publicly go back on their decision, a move prompted by Rashford writing open letters. The concept of an open letter has been around for a long time; the letters are addressed to a person or a group of people, in this case the UK government, and published on a public platform, which in this case was Rashford’s Twitter account. 

Having a popular Twitter account does not necessarily mean this tactic would have worked; it was high-risk, high-reward for Rashford. People with large platforms on social media are often held accountable for every word they say, and rightly so. So imagine the amount of courage required to write a two-page, 7,000-word open letter and put it where everyone can see it. By putting this letter on a public forum, Rashford revealed to the world what his beliefs are. He showed that he is not afraid to stand up for what he believes is right, imploring others to do the same.

There is a certain conviction in the tone of his letter, the kind that made not only the public, but even the government and the prime minister listen. Johnson even revealed that, upon reading the open letter, it was a phone call with Rashford that prompted the change. To be honest, he really had no other option but to do so. It was so glaringly obvious that Rashford had understood the sentiments of the nation far better than the government ever had. The government was simply not ready to do anything about it unless they were called into action, and Rashford used the power of social media to do just that. After learning about Rashford’s journey, it is undeniable that sometimes politics isn’t about conversations in the “room where it happens,” it’s about publicly holding people accountable and doing what’s right. Maybe athletes shouldn’t just stick to sports after all. 

There is a lot more to the story of Marcus Rashford, but what needs to be mentioned is his humanity. Never did he throw the first punch. With all the targets on his back, placed by the media, government officials and even the general public, he remained proud. His unwillingness to be the bad guy they wanted him to be and his unbelievable resilience to be true to himself showed people all over the world that that is the best way to be heard and respected, especially on social media. And boy, did people take note. Right at the top of the pile of accolades he has received is an MBE and an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester. Dr. Marcus Rashford MBE is a superhero whichever way you look at it, and in an era where the emphasis on picking heroes is stronger than it has ever been before, this young man might not be the worst idea. If you think otherwise, let me point you to this:

“These children matter. These children are the future of this country. They are not just another statistic. And for as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine.”

Marvel, sign him up.

Daily Arts Contributor Rushabh Shah can be reached at rushabhk@umich.edu.