Racism in sport: Little has changed this decade

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Italian football left the world speechless with their strange anti-racism campaign poster. Picture: File
Italian football left the world speechless with their strange anti-racism campaign poster. Picture: File

About 10 years ago the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights identified football and basketball as the sports with the highest number of discriminatory incidents.

A decade later, it would appear that very little has changed. At least when it comes to football. Just ask Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford.

In October England travelled to Bulgaria for a Euro qualifier and every time any of the three black England players on the field (Sterling, Rashford and Tyrone Mings) touched the ball, a section of the crowd would make monkey chants and give Nazi salutes.

A few weeks ago Rashford faced similar chants when he played in the Manchester derby.

Incidents of racism have been prevalent throughout different sporting codes and throughout the years and often fans have turned against opposing players even if they hero-worshipped black players in their own teams.

Russian-born Peter Odemwingie, who has a Russian mother and a Nigerian father, was loved by fans of his club Lokomotiv Moscow, yet when he returned to play against the club as a Premier League player with West Bromwich Albion in 2010, the very fans who had idolised him earlier, turned against him.

At the time the Nigerian international said black players were regularly subjected to insults in the Russian league.

“A group of supporters showed how narrow-minded they were to the world. Coloured players felt the open racism there and I recall a game against CSKA Moscow when their fans started the sick noises.”

I worry that the rise of the right both in the US and now in the UK is giving racists more of a voice and they feel more able to express the views they have always held
Osei Sankofa, the Kick it Out education officer.

As the number of incidents increased, football officials and organisations realised they needed to do something.

The UK pressure group, Kick it Out, which assists in the fight against discrimination for everyone involved in football, developed an app, which allows football fans who’ve witnessed discrimination in the stands to report it anonymously.

But, instead of the number of racist incidents decreasing, there seem to be more and more every year.

UK government statistics show that football-related hate crimes rose by 47% in England and Wales in the 2018/19 season.

“With so many high-profile cases of racism and discrimination both on and off the pitch during that time, it is a very timely reminder to everyone involved in the game that there is still much work to do.

“We need to readdress how we tackle the many issues that so many of us thought had gone away,” said Osei Sankofa, the Kick it Out education officer.

Former Southampton media officer Graham Hiley questioned whether the number of racist incidents had really increased.

“What I think has changed is that they are being reported.

“Players are speaking out, clubs are taking action against racist fans and the whole issue is no longer hidden in the shadows. There has been a greater education and awareness both within the sport and society in general.

“However, I worry that the rise of the right both in the US and now in the UK is giving racists more of a voice and they feel more able to express the views they have always held.

“The recent [UK] general election result is only likely to make things worse, in my opinion.”

Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired. He’s fired!
Donald Trump after Colin Kaepernick took a knee

In the US, President Donald Trump has been accused of fuelling racism by attacking athletes, such as National Basketball Association (NBA) star LeBron James.

The LA Lakers’ player had earlier highlighted the difficulties black people faced in the US.

“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, you know being black in the US is tough.”

Shortly after making that statement, James’ house was vandalised and offensive and racist words were spray-painted on it. The police investigated the incident as a possible hate crime, prompting the basketballer to say: “We’ve got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in the US.”

Trump used Twitter to launch his attack on James. “LeBron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made LeBron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”, with an apparent reference to retired NBA superstar Michael Jordan.

Manchester City and England forward Raheem Sterling, seen here wearing a Kick It Out antiracism T-shirt, has been a victim of racist abuse. Picture: Clive Rose / Getty Images

Trump also felt the need to become involved when US football player Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand for the US national anthem in protest against the way black people were being treated by police and the criminal justice system. Instead he kneeled.

The San Francisco 49ers’ player started a movement that soon had many other US footballers and athletes from other codes following suit. This prompted Trump, in a particularly vitriolic attack to call on the National Football League owners at a rally in Alabama saying they should react to protesting players.

Trump said: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired. He’s fired!”

And it is not only team sports that are affected.

There’s barely any diversity in F1. Still nothing’s changed in the 11 years I’ve been here
Lewis Hamilton - the first black F1 Champion

Formula One’s first black world champion, Lewis Hamilton, expressed concern about the state of things.

“There’s barely any diversity in F1. Still nothing’s changed in the 11 years I’ve been here,” he said on social media two years ago.

Recently the Mercedes driver said he believed racism was a “very, very prominent” world issue and doubted it would change “for a long time”.

“It’s really there, all around the world. Racism is still an issue, which is sad to see. It doesn’t seem as if it’s going to change much in the next years or for a long time.

“But it’s great to see people standing by in support,” he said.

Racism in sport is obviously an issue that nobody can ignore as the last decade has not seen a decrease in the number of racist incidents.

What is unclear though, is what the reaction should be. Europe’s governing football body Uefa, for instance, implemented a three-step protocol to deal with racist behaviour. And Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin called on governments to declare “war on the racists. Believe me, Uefa is committed to doing everything it can to eliminate this disease from football.

“We cannot afford to be content with this. We must always strive to strengthen our resolve.

“More broadly, the football family – everyone from administrators to players, coaches and fans – needs to work with governments and NGOs to wage war on the racists and to marginalise their abhorrent views to the fringes of society.”

Fighting talk indeed and the majority of sports fans worldwide would be on his side – hoping that in 10 years, the war against racism in sport would have finally been won.

A decade of despicable racism

2009 – Brydan Klein, former Australian Open junior tennis champion, called South African Raven Klaasen the k-word when they participated in the qualifying rounds of an ATP event. After an investigation, the Briton was banned for six months and given a fine of £6 000 (R113 000).

2010 – Peter Odemwingie, at the time a West Bromwich Albion player, attacked Lokomotiv Moscow (his previous club) supporters in Russia after experiencing discriminatory comments and having racist banners aimed at him.

2011 – The England and Chelsea captain, John Terry, was accused of making a racist comment to Anton Ferdinand during a Premier League match. Terry faced criminal charges and was presented to the Westminster Magistrates’ Court where he was found not guilty.

2012 – The Croatian Football Federation was fined £65 000 after fans racially abused Mario Balotelli during the Euro. A photographer reportedly saw a steward recovering a banana and heard monkey chants directed at the player.

2013 – Golfer Sergio Garcia racially insulted Tiger Woods, world No 1, during the European Tour gala dinner. Woods felt that the comment was “wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate”. The Spanish golfer apologised but faced the risk of losing sponsors. 

2014 – The Russian Football Union has excluded a player from three matches for making an “insulting gesture” towards supporters who racially abused him. FC Rostov player Guélor Kanga was targeted by Spartak Moscow’s fans during a Premier League match.

2015 – Curt Schilling, former baseball pitcher, who was one of sports channel ESPN’s foremost analysts, was suspended and pulled from Little League World Series telecasts for making controversial remarks on air and social media but, mainly, after posting a tweet comparing Muslim extremists to Nazis. A year later he was fired for making anti-transgender remarks.

2016 – San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem at the start of a National Football League game. He explained his protest action by saying he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”.

2017 – LeBron James’ house was vandalised and spray-paint was used to leave behind offensive and racist words. The situation was investigated as a possible hate crime. The NBA star said “being black in America is tough”.

2018 – Raheem Sterling, England and Manchester City forward, accused the media of “fuelling racism”. After being a victim himself during a match, he posted an article on social media showing how differently tabloids treat people of colour.

2019 – Mercedes F1 members have been sacked after racist bullying took place against a Muslim colleague. A poll was posted and there was betting on how quickly their colleague would break their Ramadan fast. A source told the paper: “This was a really horrible case of racist bullying. They had been picking on one Muslim guy for years. It’s outrageous, especially with [Lewis] Hamilton being so outspoken about racism.”


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