‘Alive and kicking’: Moving forward the debate on racism in sport
This blog post is written by Phil Mawhinney, Research and Policy Analyst at Runnymede. This post also appears on the Runnymede site.
Racism is very much alive in sport, despite it being one of the few remaining public spaces for anti-racism, and new forms of racism are emerging. So said Professor Ben Carrington at a Europe House discussion on racism in sport held last week, in partnership with Runnymede. So, is the debate actually progressing and how can we move forward?
Even football-phobes cannot have failed to notice the recent Euro 2012 tournament (won, predictably, by the pre-eminent Spanish side), and the many programmes and articles highlighting the racist abuse of players by fans. Add this to the recent high-profile cases of (alleged) abuse by players on other players – such as Luis Suarez being banned for abusing Patrice Evra, and John Terry being stripped of the England captaincy while under investigation for abusing Anton Ferdinand – and you can see why racism in sport has been so widely-discussed of late.
Former footballers Paul Elliot CBE and Paul Mortimer spoke at the event, giving affecting accounts of the abuse they received, including from their own fans and teammates. Many see footballers as huge egos, grossly overpaid for playing a kids’ game. Paul Elliot helpfully emphasized that the football pitch is the footballer’s workplace and everybody has the right to work in a place free from discrimination. Racism in sport is about rights.
He also highlighted institutional racism in football – not a difficult task when the president of FIFA (the international governing body) says that players who are abused should ‘remember it’s just a game’ and ‘shake hands’ with their abuser. But Elliot’s specific point was that while 25 per cent of players in the English league are black, there are only 3 or 4 black managers and too few black coaches.
One proposal is to introduce the ‘Rooney Rule’, where clubs would have to interview at least one black candidate for a manager’s job. Introduced in American football, it would be a concrete development in smashing the glass ceiling for black managers, but is yet to be adopted.
The discussion wasn’t all football. Athletics was also prominent, with former Olympic hurdler Tasha Danvers and event organiser Michelle Moore, Runnymede Trustee, giving their insight. And Prof Carrington touched on the strain of racism in descriptions of black athletes as genetically disposed to physical superiority, which hints at the spectre of eugenics. The implication of this being that discipline and resilience are the reserve of white athletes.
As well as taking stock, the discussion provided two memorable new ideas about how we conceptualise race and sport.
1.) Cosmopolitan racism
Racism has taken new, sometimes subtler, forms in cosmopolitan, middle-class spaces. An intriguing example is the Liverpool fan Phillip Gannon, arrested for racially abusing Patrice Evra during a match. A Welsh man, watching two English teams, abusing a French player. In French! Or the cartoon in an Italian newspaper in which the black Italian footballer Mario Balotelli was depicted as King Kong. Similarly, the 2008 image of basketball player LeBron James on the cover of Vogue, again criticized for echoing King Kong.
2.) Anti-racist nationalism
Projecting British moral superiority by comparing our impeccable anti-racist ethics with the moral degeneracy of other countries. So, expressing xenophobic attitudes through castigating as racist foreign players like Luis Suarez or, say, the entirety of Ukrainian and Polish society (Euro 2012 hosts).
One other point struck me, about resistance. Campaigners want to see ethnic minority sportspeople showing stronger resistance to abuse. They lionise Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their radical act of resistance in the 1968 Mexico Olympics and ask ‘Where is today’s equivalent?’ The panelists reminded us of the cost paid by Smith and Carlos and asked if there is a strong enough social movement in the UK to support those who would make a stand and be widely vilified. Good question.
Indeed, Euro 2012 did provide such a moment of resistance, according to Carrington – Mario Balotelli’s goal celebration against Germany, when he tore off his shirt (earning him a caution), threw it onto the ground and struck a pose of muscular defiance. Bear in mind the King Kong cartoon of him days before, and that a banana was thrown at him in the recent match against Croatia. It may be that resistance among sportspeople is not completely dead.