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Racism Undermines the Promise of Sports

August 31, 2019
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Sports around the world potentially bring people together as nothing else can. Sports can unite countries, with myriad ethnic groups and language, or cities and states. The solidarity that perfect strangers can find through playing and watching sports cannot be overstated. Cheering for the same team, and embracing fandom can be a catharsis.

But racism threatens this vision, by sowing animosity, bigotry and in extreme cases hatred, between players and fans. Across the globe and throughout the sports world, racism and athletics have an unfortunate historical relationship.

A recent relevant piece on this topic is here. The article focused on an interview with Ben Carrington, a journalism professor from the University of Southern California. While the article specifically discusses soccer, the issues addressed cross all sports.

The situation is thought-provoking. But FIFA and other sports leagues solutions to the problem are weak, ineffective and do not curtail the fundamental causes.

Racism is an ideology. Merely fining teams or banning certain fans who engage in racist behavior from traveling to games is not the answer.

The conundrum is a difficult one, from a number of perspectives. Global sports leagues have fans who pay for the experience of watching live games. Those leagues provide a service.

But what happens when either those fans or the players themselves commit racist acts? 

What is the appropriate response from the leadership of those leagues? In soccer, cricket, and a host of other sports, the punishment is either collective (towards the fans) or the individual, fining the player(s).

However, a systematic examination of why the actions or events happened rarely occurs.

I have a few comments on this piece:

There is a widely-held belief that soccer brings the world together in a way that other sports cannot. This mindset is reinforced by books like “How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.” If you Google ‘soccer and peace’ or ‘soccer and unity,’ you will find dozens of entries which proclaim this.

But does it?

No one can credibly make such claim for any sport.

Soccer is regarded as a standard of equality, vastly different from other sports, because of its universality. But along with its great breadth of populations and groups playing it, comes increased chances for stereotypes and racism, from both fans and players.

Merely because soccer is more global than any other sport, does not preclude racism, racist tendencies, and ideologies from seeping into the game. The cancer of racist ideology, bigotry, and stereotypes extends through all sports.

.. in regular society being called a racist is taken as being worse than the racist actions”

This idea certainly transcends sports. In 2019 to be called racist is more damaging than saying something racist. We are terrified to admit someone is racist. We shudder to believe that their language or actions reveal their true selves.

And we hide behind this fiction saying, ‘well maybe they said something racist, but surely they didn’t mean it.’  Then we justify that excuse by saying the person has friends who are persons of color, they eat ethnic food, they have traveled extensively, etc.

But that is not the point. Racism is not a binary construct. There are degrees to bigotry.

If you say racist things, then you are at some level racist. You might not be a hood wearing Klan member or an alt-right adherent, but using racially insensitive language reveals your character.

The US Context

Racism exists in the USA’s big five professional sports as well. Sometimes, it is an outright racist ideology, but more frequently it masquerades as stereotypes. For example:

  • Black quarterbacks are really just great athletes, they are not prototypical quarterbacks
  • Black hockey players are so few, because black people do not care about hockey, and would rather chase and focus their athletic skills in basketball and football
  • Professional black basketball players are really just ‘thugs’ who rise from poverty’s ashes

Most American professional sports owners are white, wealthy billionaires, while the men and women they employ are majority people of color, many coming from impoverished backgrounds.

Racism and sports are forever linked

Mr. Carrington makes a good point. Sports and society are not separate entities; they are part of one another. Where a group like FIFA, and other professional sports bodies continually fail is in recognizing this. Sports leagues want to compartmentalize their sport from the world in which their players and fans live. But that is impossible.

Sports are part of life and have been for all human existence.

It follows then, that just as racism and nativist ideology have existed as long as humanity, that it would always affect sports as well. To think otherwise ignores history. 

Racism and racist ideology will always plague sports, until they disappear from society.

Instead, leagues need to dialogue about racism, nativism and racist ideology, just as people outside of sports do. They should be exploring the issues, examining where prejudices come from and why they persist in 2019.

What are the underlying factors which make someone believe that a person’s skin color makes them less or more of a person than another fellow human? This is the type of racism that must be faced, acknowledged and attempted to be understood. 

Merely adding monetary fines, while minimizing the problem or pretending it does not exist makes everything worse.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!