THERE was always something courageous about Jadon Sancho.
The England winger’s decision to quit Manchester City and head for Borussia Dortmund at the age of 17 was bold and rare for a young English footballer.
That Sancho has since backed up his self-belief with 33 goals and 37 assists for one of Europe’s major clubs makes him all the more special.
In Sunday’s 6-1 thrashing of Paderborn, Sancho became the youngest player to reach 30 Bundesliga goals and the first Englishman in 31 years to score a hat-trick overseas in one of Europe’s major leagues.
Those footballing landmarks, achieved on Sancho’s first start since his 20th birthday on March 25, were remarkable.
Yet far more significant was his decision to take off his shirt and reveal a ‘Justice For George Floyd’ T-shirt after scoring his first goal.
Floyd was the 46-year-old black American who died last week in Minneapolis after being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.
White policeman Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.
Mobile-phone footage shows Floyd telling the officer ‘I can’t breathe’ and pleading ‘don’t kill me’.
The policeman, since fired and charged with murder, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for almost three minutes even after his victim became unresponsive.
American cities have been burning ever since, leaving President Donald Trump cowering in a bunker.
There have also been mass demonstrations in Britain in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ anti-racism movement.
For Sancho — like many others, black and white — Floyd’s death on May 25 was harrowing and enraging.
So with the eyes of the sporting world on the Bundesliga after it became the first major league to head out of its lockdown, Sancho made his stand — with his T-shirt slogan then with an instagram post.
He declared his first professional hat-trick as being “a bittersweet moment personally as there are more important things going on in the world today that we must address.”
“We must come together and fight for justice,” he continued, “We are stronger together!”
Marcus Rashford, Dina Asher-Smith and Lewis Hamilton were among other black British sports stars to make similar statements.
They are an articulate, outspoken and impressive generation.
For the first wave of black English footballers, just being out there, in an age of overt banana-throwing racism, was a statement enough.
Viv Anderson, the first black England international. John Barnes, the first black English football superstar. Paul Ince, the first black England captain.
They were significant pioneers but if they held strong political beliefs, then we knew little about them.
Before social media, and with a mainstream press which often didn’t want to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about racism, they did not have the means — or perhaps the confidence — to voice them.
Times have changed, for the better, in that respect.
And England’s black footballers, most notably Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose, have used their platforms to make strong arguments about racism.
For decades, black people with sporting or musical prowess have been lauded, knowing full well if they hadn’t possessed such exceptional talent, they would be far more likely than white people to encounter poverty and persecution, including police harassment.
Floyd himself was a promising American footballer as a teenager and had also been a hip-hop artist. Yet he wasn’t good enough, or lucky enough, to make a fortune at either.
If you saw Sancho’s T-shirt message and parroted the tired old phrase that ‘sports and politics shouldn’t mix’ then you are happy to cheer black people scoring goals or winning medals for your country without wishing to acknowledge the prejudice and inequalities they and their families face.
Manchester United star Rashford has helped raise £20million for the FareShare anti-hunger charity during the pandemic.
He says: “At a time I’ve been asking people to come together, work together and be united, we appear to me, more divided than ever. People are hurting and people need answers.”
As their country isolates itself from the wider world, having elected an anti-immigration government with a big majority, the voices of black British sportsmen and women are increasingly important.
Some might not want to hear them but they are not going away.
Black lives matter. And the voices of black sports people matter more than ever.