There is a memorable scene in the baseball film 42. Starting with a father and son watching a 1947 MLB game from the stands, they reminisce about old games and discuss what is to come: the archetypal father and son scenario.
When African-American player Jackie Robinson walks out (played by Chadwick Boseman), the mood changes. The father hurls racist slurs, telling Robinson he’s not welcome. The focus then switches to the son, who looks around for guidance, and then screams the same insults. The message is clear: racism is taught, not born.
Following images of Chelsea fans abusing Raheem Sterling, while a young boy stood barely three rows behind, this was the scene that came to mind – the MailOnline reported that one supporter used offensive racial slurs. Racial equality has made huge progress since Jackie Robinson, however, there is still a long way to go, and abuse in football appears to be on the rise.
Footballing equality site Kick It Out received 520 reports of abuse in the 2017/18 season, a 30% increase on the previous year. More than half of these reports were race related. Significantly, this is not just a British issue. In France, Guinean midfielder Kerfalla Sissoko was racially threatened and beaten unconscious during an amateur game. Despite being hospitalised with three fractures, Sissoko received the same penalty as those who beat him: a ten-match ban for violent behaviour.
The German World Cup winner Mesut Özil blamed his retirement on disrespect from the German fans, as he claimed that “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose”: a poignant message from one of the biggest names in the modern game.
In Italy, die-hard fans known as “ultras” are increasingly linked with neo-Nazi and fascist movements. Lazio are arguably the worst offenders. Some fans showed banners supporting the Holocaust and attacking Tottenham fans due to the London club’s Jewish background. These may be extreme cases, but it is clear the abuse experienced by Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were not isolated incidents, but part of a wider culture of discrimination. One only has to look at how frequently black players are categorised as being quick and powerful but technically inept, or not ‘smart’ footballers – a criticism baselessly levied at Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly by pundit Steve McManaman during BT Sport’s coverage of Napoli’s Champions League campaign this season.
“ultras” are increasingly linked with neo-Nazi and fascist movements
With all this information easily accessible, why is there not more coverage of racism in football in the mainstream press? Why is it the responsibility of a 24-year-old athlete, whose focus should be on his career, to start a national conversation about the way black players are treated?
With most cases of abuse at high-profile matches, it is briefly discussed, universally condemned and the abusers are banned or arrested. Post-match, the incident is forgotten, and no real change is made or conversation had. In the FA’s English Football’s Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Action Plan, there is a detailed goal “to instil confidence in reporting discrimination”, but not enough is being done to alter a culture that thinks it is acceptable to abuse players in the first place.
Sterling posted on Instagram showing two players in very similar situations being treated differently by the press due to their race. This was a wonderfully open protest that has started a healthy debate about racism in British football. However, it came just a week after a banana was thrown at Aubameyang during the North London derby, and a month after PSG admitted to racially profiling young players, so why was this debate not already taking place on the national, if not the world stage?
We cannot rely on players to lead the way in stamping out racism in football. Although it is a necessary starting point, there needs to be more action from the FA and other major associations across the world if abuse and discrimination at all levels of the game will ever be completely eradicated. Until then, the boy at the baseball game will continue to learn from his father.