Published on Wednesday, 01 August 2012 21:28 Written by Daphne Liddle
This was the message of a symposium organised in London on 4 July by lawyer and poet Dave Neita and Michelle Moore, an independent development consultant. It brought together Professor Ben Carrington, an internationally respected authority on the issues 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.
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, Aston Villa and Celtic, where he won the Scottish Footballer of the Year award in 1989.
Also on the panel was Tasha Danvers, a British Olympic bronze medallist in the 400 metres hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Olympic. The debate was chaired by Keme Nzerem, an award-winning journalist employed by Channel Four News as a news anchor and sports reporter.
Michelle Moore has held a range of academic, vocational, pastoral and advisory posts, while 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.
Another participant was Paul Mortimer, who 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. 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.
Finally there was Bart Oojen, policy officer in the Sport Unit for the European Commission since 2009 who has a long record of fighting violence, discrimination and intolerance.
Professor Carrington began his keynote address by 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 the discrimination and poverty they face in the back streets of America. But it cost Carlos and Smith dearly in the short term as their sporting careers were halted for some years. In the long term their names are now in the history books.
There are plenty of black footballers now in the top clubs but still very few at higher levels, as managers or directors.
Professor Carrington also refuted the idea, now being promoted, that the descendents 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.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and mistaken assumptions about racism and sport going round,” he added. “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 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.
On 20 December, the FA concluded a seven-day hearing by 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.
Suárez and Evra next met on 11 February 2012 when Liverpool played Manchester United at Old Trafford. During the traditional pre-game handshakes, Suárez avoided shaking Evra's hand. Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish continued to defend Suárez's provocative behaviour until Liverpool’s owners and shirt sponsor, Standard Chartered, pressured both Suárez and Dalglish to issue formal apologies for their conduct. The bad reputation Liverpool FC was getting was costing them money.
Professor Carrington also mentioned the incident between John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, which resulted in racism charges against Terry, who was found not guilty at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 13 July. 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 “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 1980s, when it was common for racists to boo black players, make monkey noises and throw bananas onto the pitch. Now most top west European clubs have a high proportion of black players and they are not expected to put up with this overt racism.
Following Professor 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.
He 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 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 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.”
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.
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”.
The consensus of the meeting was that it is easier now to challenge racist remarks but vitally important to do so in every case and to explain the harm that racism does, to improve the understanding of the person who made the remark. 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.”