The uncomfortable truth: Sport’s response to racism still isn’t good enough
Athletes and clubs using their platform in response to police brutality in America and racial injustice is necessary, writes Pete Sharland, but sport still has so much more it can do in the fight against racism.
Liverpool players take a knee in memory of George Floyd at Anfield on June 01, 2020 in Liverpool, England.
Published 02/06/2020 at 13:44 GMT | Updated 31/07/2020 at 11:07 GMT
This article was initially published in June
Everyone will have seen the protests from the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Thuram and Achraf Hakimi over the weekend. Along with the statements made by countless players and organisations, all to express their horror at what is going on in America right now.
It shouldn’t need reiterating but just in case, a black man lost his life because a white police officer applied wholly unnecessary force to his neck. And George Floyd was just the latest in a depressingly long list of people who have lost their lives based on the colour of their skin.
This issue affects us all and it speaks to the systemic racism that still exists in America and across the world. In 2020 it seems astonishing that there are so many people out there who will treat others differently because of their gender or racial background - yet here we are.
On so many levels this is an issue that goes far beyond sport, yet at the same time it deeply entwines itself with sport.
This year alone you could lose count of the amount of racist abuse professional athletes have suffered on the pitch, whilst another NFL season concluded with Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who led his team to a Super Bowl final, remaining out of work as a former executive admitted Kaepernick’s protests were the reason why he wasn't back in the league. That is without considering the seemingly endless amount of abuse athletes of colour receive on social media.
So to suggest that this is nothing to do with sport is to lose sight of the entire problem. Racism exists in every aspect of society and culture. Sport is a key part of society and culture ergo we need to discuss how sport handles racism.
And if you’re being brutally honest the answer right now is: not well.
Sancho wears 'Justice for George Floyd' shirt
Let’s start with this. Former England international Paul Parker joined myself, Ben Snowball and Ola Fisayo on the Game of Opinions podcast on Tuesday to discuss this issue - and he shared this perspective.
“For all the years I was growing up I was around other black people playing football. The older ones, the more mature ones they always said to me, ‘Paul whatever you do you have to better than the white man because otherwise if you’re not you’re not going to go any further. If you’re 50-50 you know which way they’re going to go'. And I think that statement hasn’t really changed over the years really up to now and we’re talking 40 years minimum of me being told things like that.”
The sad advice Paul Parker received as a youngster
Parker spoke about how he was encouraged by some progress being made and how black athletes had the platform to speak out without fear as much as in his day, but still throughout the conversation reiterated his belief that so much still needs to change.
But what change can there be?
Current European and world champions Liverpool made waves across social media with a picture of their entire squad taking a knee before training, something that other clubs have also done, whilst a host of players have called out all the racial inequality that exists in the world today.
Yet by and large all these professional clubs are run by rich white men. Governing bodies? Run by rich white men. There is a systemic issue across all of sport where people of colour are being constantly overlooked.
Changes are being made, on varying scales depending on the sport, but not enough is being done. As Parker pointed out, you want people of colour to be given equal opportunities based on merit, they warrant being given these jobs. Everyone wants equality in hiring process but if you look at the racial diversity in the boardrooms across sport can you honestly say there are equal opportunities right now?
There are some things sports clubs can’t control. They can’t control the behaviour of their fans, either online or at the stadiums. The messages the clubs and players put out are good and show the racist minority their views are wrong but it is up to social media companies to better police their platforms.
What they can influence is the behaviour of the bodies that control sport.
'How is breaking social distancing worse than racism?'
But what would have happened if there had been racist chanting at one of their games? Well we know the answer to this because we have constantly seen it, not necessarily at this club but across football. The worst punishment that UEFA, FIFA or any league has seen fit to hand out is partial or full stadium closures and a small, normally five or six-figure, fine. Sometimes, see recent cases in Italy, there is no punishment at all…
How on earth can that still be the response? If you were a racist and didn’t understand what you were doing was wrong, or worse didn’t care, would seeing those responses stop your racism? Probably not.
A hefty point deduction is unfair on the players and staff at the club. It’s unfair on 90% of fans. But it might be what is needed to get it into these people’s heads that what they’re doing is wrong. Once they can accept that then the education can begin. Education is a vital tool, it is imperative in the fight against racism, but sadly a lot of these people need more to get the point across. Because until they get to the stage where they want to change of their own volition any attempt to educate comes across as condescending to those people, which only further fuels the hate that burns inside them.
So whilst the messages decrying the situation are good, there’s still an uncomfortable conversation to be had within these protests.
'Club protests can feel uncomfortable'
Liverpool's English defender Jamie Carragher warms up wearing a t-shirt supporting team-mate Luis Suarez (not pictured) before the English Premier League football match between Wigan Athletic and Liverpool at The DW Stadium in Wigan
Image credit: Getty Images
Let’s make one thing clear first of all. It is absolutely 100% the right decision to protest against the racial injustice in the world, both in person as well as online. Yet there is a harsh reality that in some instances people are adding their voices and hashtags to campaigns because they want to be seen to be doing so, rather than because they understand or care why they’re doing it.
Parker touched upon this in Game of Opinions. “It seems like now it’s fashionable for people to be offended,” Parker said. “I don’t want people saying they’re offended if they don’t mean it. All I want is that if people are going to say something make sure it is from your heart and not because you feel you have to do it.”
That’s why some of the protests from clubs can feel so uncomfortable. Liverpool and Chelsea are two clubs that have led the way in recent days but it is not so long since these clubs were blindly supporting Luis Suarez and John Terry.
But to dismiss their protests because of those actions in the past is to also lose sight of the argument. It’s not about picking a side and rabidly sticking to it. People need to know it’s okay to admit that in the past you made mistakes but now you’re trying to do better. It’s something that we are so bad at in today’s society. Social media has put this pressure on us to act as if we are experts in everything and to blindly defend opinions from the past; people seem so afraid to admit that they are ignorant and conversely the general populous seems so unwilling to accept people have changed. That’s not what being a human is about.
It’s about everyone trying to be a little bit better as people every day.
“To do something repetitive isn’t bad,” Parker argues. “It’s good to keep reminding people all the time and telling them and educating them about creed, religion, the colour of one’s skin and keep reminding them rather than just thinking ‘here’s a t-shirt, run around with that before the game then take it off and play the game'.
“What’s the point in that, what is the point? Listen, kids are not born racist, they become racist because of the people around them, often because of parents and family. Those are the ones who need educating, it is the kids who can educate their family.”
Parker’s right, The education cannot stop. And this is why sport is so important.
'Athletes have vital role to play'
Athletes are one of the few high-profile groups who manage to bridge the political divides. Their voice will be heard by a diverse group that others could only dream of. Now more than ever it is important for athletes to speak out, although as Parker says they have to want to and understand why they are doing it. For example the immediate response in the F1 paddock to comments from Lewis Hamilton certainly provides more questions than answers. That’s where the education comes in. If high-profile people are educated and more understanding it can hopefully have a trickle-down effect.
But sport as a whole has to look at itself and realise that it is simply not doing enough. Clubs and sporting bodies have to make decisions that ultimately might end up alienating some aspects of their fanbases. But if those you are alienating hold these views why does it really matter?
You know why. You know the uncomfortable truth at the heart of every issue. It’s why Kaepernick is out of a job, it’s why clubs and countries aren’t thrown out of a competition for racism, heck it’s why some competitions took so long to react to the coronavirus when athletes and fans were at risk.
It’s money. It’s all about money.
And until owners, organisers and officials can show consistently that they care more about what is good versus what will make them money we won’t have change. That goes for society as a whole, just not sport.
How do you fix this problem when so much is controlled by so few? It's hard to find an answer. The more people that are educated and who want to learn the better, as it makes for a more inclusive society. But until that change makes it way to those in power, and in a meaningful way, nothing will change. Until then everyone has to keep doing whatever they can at whatever level. Donate to causes that need it, don’t be afraid to call out that friend or family member with antiquated views, and never stop learning about the world, its history, the people in the world, and their history.