Last summer, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was the center of attention during the Europa League finals in Baku, Azerbaijan. He was promised safety by the Azerbaijani government but still felt unsafe to travel to the capital. This was understandable, given the longstanding hostility by the Azerbaijani government towards Armenia and its citizens. There has been a ceasefire agreement since 1994 that has been broken many times since. The historically Armenian Republic of Artsakh, an ethnic Armenian area between Armenia and Azerbaijan, is one of the reasons for hostility by the Azerbaijani government. Beginning in the late 1980s, Azerbaijan, which controlled the Armenian region under the Soviet Union, sought to eliminate the Armenian presence in Artsakh through mass violence. Recent attacks on the Armenia border underscore this hostility.
Throughout his career, Mkhitaryan has been the model figure for Armenians everywhere because of his international reach and what he represents. As a small country, Armenia does not get enough international representation, so people like Mkhitaryan mean so much to the Armenian community. With this outreach, Mkhitaryan has been able to draw attention to issues important to the Armenian cause, including the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments’ aggression against Armenians. Because of this aggression and Mkhitaryan’s stature, the attention on the danger to Mkhitaryan and the hateful attitude of many in Azerbaijan during the Europa League finals educated many fans about the situation. Indeed, many felt it was unfair for the final to be held in Baku when there was a threat to Mkhitaryan’s life. When concerns for his safety caused Mkhitaryan to be taken off the finals roster, broadcaster and Arsenal fan Piers Morgan tweeted, “Seriously, Arsenal fans? We’re going to leave our man behind because he’s Armenian? This is a total disgrace. We must all boycott the game until @UEFA moves it.” This kind of attention by a noteworthy personality shined much-needed light on a major Armenian issue.
Mkhitaryan makes important contributions out of the public eye as well. For instance, he donated Armenian national team jerseys to Armenian soldiers and honored them for their brave service. Even more importantly, he takes the time to visit wounded soldiers. His commitment to Armenia and Armenians goes beyond flashy headline news; he is willing to go out and actually take action to try to help Armenia.
In Europe, where football is so prominent and Mkhitaryan continues to play for major teams, his name is one that every fan knows. He has played for Manchester United, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund; he is currently on Roma in the Serie A Italian League. His fanbase includes Armenians as well as international audiences. And when he talks or posts content about Armenia, more people start looking into Armenia’s history which so many around the world do not know.
Similar to Mkhitaryan, NBA Celtics player Enes Kanter’s refusal to travel to London because of safety concerns was a major topic of discussion in the sports world and beyond. Kanter is Turkish and has been outspoken in calling attention to the authoritarian leadership and harm being done by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His very public concern for democracy and human rights in his country resulted in his Turkish passport being revoked; when his team traveled to London in January 2019, he was unable to accompany them. Kanter’s special position as a world-famous Turk meant that his speaking out educated many people who would not otherwise have understood the problems Erdogan has caused in Turkey and how bad the situation has become. Because of his fame and prominence, he reached many people who, on their own, would never have tried to learn anything about Erdogan and the harm he is doing to Turks and those outside Turkey as well. Surely Kanter provides young Turkish people with an important model for how to be a good citizen and truly care for his country.
Even though Kanter and his struggle against Erdogan is a Turkish, not Armenian issue, it has important implications for Armenians. First of all, there are around 70,000 Armenians still living in Turkey today who are subject to discrimination and violence which Erdogan has made even worse. Any increase in democracy and human rights in Turkey can help these Armenians. What is more, exposing the authoritarian, repressive nature of Turkey’s government helps people appreciate that Turkey does not recognize the Armenian Genocide and continues hostility against Armenians.
When we are so used to reading about the problems of spoiled, selfish and even violent sports stars, these two individuals exemplify the impact of thoughtful athletes committed to doing good things.