By Daphne Liddle
THE FIGHT against racism in sport has come a long way since the launch of the “Let’s kick racism out of football” campaign in 1993 and there have been many advances and achievements since then. But it would be a serious mistake to imagine that the problem is solved and that racism in sport has been defeated.
This was the message of a symposium organised in London on 4th July by lawyer and poet Dave Neita and independent development consultant Michelle Moore. It brought together Professor Ben Carrington, an internationally respected authority on the intersections of race, gender, class and nation within sport and a panel of experienced experts in the field to debate the issue: “Does sport promote or challenge racism?” in front of a large audience of people, most with experience and concern about sport and combating racism.
The panel included Paul Elliott CBE, a black footballer who made his professional debut at Charlton Athletic Football Club in 1980 and went on to play for Luton and Aston Villa and Celtic, where he won the Scottish Footballer of the Year award in 1989. Later he moved to Chelsea where he became the club’s first black captain. Paul is a trustee for Kick It Out and has been awarded an MBE and then a CBE for services to equality and diversity in the game.
Also on the panel was Tasha Danvers, a British Olympic bronze medallist in the 400 metres hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She is now engaged in coaching and is a 2012 Olympic Games ambassador.
Keme Nzerem is an award-winning journalist employed by Channel Four News as a news anchor and sports reporter. He reported on the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He also reported from the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and visited Guantanamo Bay to investigate the legal rights of the detainees.
Michelle Moore has held a range of academic, vocational, pastoral and advisory posts and specialises in the areas of primary and secondary education, developing a schools engagement strategy for the Black Cultural Archives. She has also worked for Charlton Athletic Football Club and developed community sports education programmes.
Dave Neita is known as the People’s Lawyer and is also a poet. He has specialised in representing excluded individuals and marginalised groups, including thousands of South African asbestos miners seeking compensation.
Paul Mortimer began his football career with Farnborough Town in 1986 and joined Charlton Athletic the following year. He later played for Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Bristol City. Since then he has worked as a coach at Arsenal, Brentford and Wimbledon. He has now returned to Charlton Athletic where he coaches the club’s women’s team and is an ambassador for Show Racism the Red Card.
Also on the panel was Bart Oojen, policy officer in the Sport Unit for the European Commission since 2009 and has a long record of fighting violence, discrimination and intolerance as well as supporting social inclusion, equal opportunities and dual careers.
David Neita opened the proceedings by introducing the panel and the topic. He said we cannot assume the battle against racism in sport has been won – “we should take racism as seriously as this Government takes terrorism”.
Ben Carrington began his key-note address posing the question: “Does sport promote or challenge racism?” and went on to say that although we have come a very long way between 1912 and 2012 sport does not automatically deliver positive outcomes.
He cited the raised fist Black Power salute given by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics to draw attention to inequality and poverty in Black communities in the United States. The gesture certainly raised the issue of racism faced by Black people in sport and in general but it cost Carlos and Smith dearly in the short term as their sporting careers were halted for some years. But in the long term their names are now in the history books.
Carrington also refuted the idea, now being promoted, that the descendants of black slaves are some sort of sporting super race because of the adversity in simply surviving faced by their ancestors. “This is again defining black people by their physicality: ‘They are naturally good at sport’, implying they are not so hot at mental ability. And does it mean that athletes like Paula Radcliffe are really black?”
“There’s a lot of misinformation and mistaken assumptions about racism and sport going round,” he said, “At the moment there’s a conflict between nationalism and cosmopolitanism arising from the recent UEFA Cup finals. The media in Britain were promoting the idea that Britain is way ahead of some other European countries – Poland and Ukraine for example – in combating racism and that we should be teaching the rest of the world.
“But we’ve still got serious problems in our own backyard.”
And he cited the incident in October last year, when Liverpool were playing at home to Manchester United, Liverpool player Luis Suárez was accused of racially abusing Patrice Evra and the Football Association opened up an investigation into the incident. According to Evra's testimony, Suárez said in Spanish that he had earlier kicked Evra "because you are black", said "I don't speak to blacks" and used the word "negro" five times in total as they argued. Suárez had claimed that his use of the word “negro” to address Evra was conciliatory and friendly, but the FA rejected this claim as being "unsustainable and simply incredible given that the players were engaged in an acrimonious argument”.
On 16th November the FA announced it would charge Suárez with "abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour contrary to FA rules", including "a reference to the ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race of Patrice Evra."
Liverpool FC released a statement announcing Suárez would plead innocent, adding that they would "remain fully supportive" of him. On 20th December, the FA concluded a seven-day hearing, handing Suárez an eight-match ban and a £40,000 fine for racially abusing Evra.
More disturbing than Suárez's remarks was the statement put out by Liverpool FC, which claimed the club was "very surprised and disappointed" at the ban and cited Suárez's mixed race family background, as well as his involvement with multicultural projects.
Some Liverpool players displayed their support for Suárez, wearing T-shirts with his name. But the club opted not to appeal against the ban.
On 11th February 2012 Liverpool played Manchester United at Old Trafford, which was Suárez' and Evra's first meeting since Suárez's ban. During the traditional pre-game handshakes, Suárez avoided shaking Evra's hand, leading to Evra grabbing Suárez's arm. Suárez ignored Evra and continued down the line causing Evra to throw his arms up in protest and Rio Ferdinand, whose brother Anton was the victim of a separate racial abuse incident with Chelsea captain John Terry, to avoid shaking Suárez's hand.
Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish continued to defend Suárez's provocative behaviour.
This led to Suárez and Dalglish facing fierce press condemnation. In a statement released by Liverpool Managing Director Ian Ayre, Liverpool also condemned Suárez, stating that Suárez had misled the club by claiming before the game that he would shake Evra's hand. The next day, Liverpool's club owners, and shirt sponsor, Standard Chartered, forced both Suárez and Dalglish to issue formal apologies for their conduct.
Ben Carrington also mentioned the incident between John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, which is currently before the courts. And he cited the remarks by FIFA boss Sepp Blatter that the problem of racism in sport had been “overstated” and that it could be resolved simply with a friendly handshake at the end of a match.
This remark provoked outrage, including from David Beckham who declared Blatter’s attitude as “unacceptable” – showing that the consensus position on racism in football in Britain and other western European countries has moved a long way since the 1970s and 80s, when it was common for racists to boo black players, make monkey noises and throw bananas on to the pitch. Now most top west European clubs have a high proportion of black players. But there are still very few black managers or football club board members.
But also now racism is taking different, less overt forms. The Daily Mail is talking about “plastic British athletes”, implying that young athletes are migrating from poorer countries to gain British citizenship in order to have a chance of competing in the Olympics. The racism in this sort of article is disguised but the Mail made no complaint a couple of decades ago when Zola Budd’s application for British citizenship was fast forwarded so that the white South African runner could side-step the sporting boycott of Apartheid South Africa.
Following Ben Carrington’s speech Keme Nzerem questioned other members of the panel about their experiences.
Paul Elliot told the meeting of his early experiences in sport while a teenager. Trainers had assumed he would not enjoy swimming simply because he was black and that he would also feel the cold more than white players. When he first joined Charlton Athletic, a club at the forefront of combating racism in football, another player had joked about him eating “coonflakes”.
“As a player, growing up was very difficult, we were told not to be too sensitive, to rise above it all and grin and bear it. So I kept quiet in a way that I would not do now.”
But he also spoke of the power of football to engage with the general population and change attitudes as almost nothing else can – with giant signs saying: “Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football” the public mood has changed and overt racism is no longer acceptable. Now footballers can stand up and speak up and say: “I am not prepared to put up with this,” and walk off the pitch if necessary and be backed up by their white colleagues.
“Nowadays racists are changing their approach; they claim to have black relatives or friends and this means they couldn’t possibly be racist,” he said.
He also warned: “There is still a lot of racism out there in the youth teams and the amateur sports. We must fight it at that level.”
Paul Mortimer also spoke of people who claim not to be racists – who will say one thing to your face but something very different behind your back.
He related how he had tried to explain racism to his young son. “Then one day I joined a golf club, as many professional footballers do, and took him with me on my first visit. When we walked in it was just like the scene in the westerns where the villain walks into the saloon and suddenly everything goes quiet. My son was puzzled; he asked me: ‘is this because of us?’
“I told him: ‘Yes. But look at their faces, they’re all looking at the floor, they’re embarrassed by their racism.’ We walked through the room and no one would look at us but my son started laughing because they were scared to look at us. We went straight through and had a game of golf and there was no problem.”
Mortimer spoke of his work going into schools and educating the police in race awareness.
Tasha Danvers agreed that racist attitudes now are more difficult to pin down and many racists are in denial they but they are still there. One contributor from the floor gave an example of a recent race where the white girl who had come second was immediately surrounded by press and cameras congratulating her, while the black girl who had won the race was totally ignored. Black athletes are more likely to be passed over while their white colleagues will be given more chances and opportunities. And when they do triumph there is a suggestion that the success comes more easily for them because of their genetic ancestry and they have not had to try so hard.
The topic of hidden racist attitudes came up in debate many times. “Big Ron” Atkinson was mentioned and his ill-judged remark, describing a player as “what is known in the trade as a lazy nigger” when he thought the microphone had been turned off after an interview. The worst part about it was that the remark implied this description was commonplace behind the scenes “in the trade”.
And again the topic of Suárez's racist remarks and ban came up and the ripple effect: that the manager had backed the racist behaviour of the player, the club had backed both and the fans had backed the club – involving hundreds in the tacit support of racism.
It is vitally important to challenge incidents of racism wherever they occur and fines and bans can be an effective deterrent. But in the long run it is most important to engage those who make racist remarks and get across to them the harm it does and how it feels to be on the receiving end.
Black people do not have to conform to any stereotype to be accepted. Mohammed Ali’s quote: “I do not have to be what you expect me to be,” was mentioned.
Paul Elliot compared the situation to Fidel Castro still wearing his military uniform decades after the Cuban revolution: “It is because the struggle is not over. The struggle goes on. It is the same here fighting racism. We have come a very long way but there is still a lot more to do. The struggle goes on.”
It was not mentioned in the meeting but Charlton Athletic is still playing a leading role against racist discrimination. Last year the club appointed Chris Powell, a young black former player as its new manager. And the team hardly dropped a point all season and won promotion as a result with over 100 points.