Ignorance is not bliss: A look into racism in sport

No-one would claim that Barack Obama’s triumphant election to the White House little over a year ago represented a magical solution to finally end racism in America, and no-one assumes that when the self-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth roles into South Africa this year, racism will suddenly vanish from sport. Don’t get me wrong, a World Cup in Africa is almost as exciting as it is overdue, but racism is still a problem within sport which most of us acknowledge, but still unfortunately choose to ignore.

Serena and Venus Williams, with 18 Grand Slam singles titles between them, are tennis legends, and bona fide role models. They have dominated women’s tennis for an entire decade, out-lasting and out-playing almost all of their rivals along the way, and yet they still suffer from discrimination on court and in the media, just because they are unashamedly proud of who they are. In the 2001 Indian Wells final, Serena Williams was booed throughout, despite being on home soil, and her family had to put up with racist slurs more suited to pre-Abolition times than 21st century California. The sisters understandably decided to boycott the event in future years. They were then met with a backlash of criticism when they announced that despite Indian Wells being made a compulsory tournament for 2009, they would continue to stay away from the Californian desert event. Some journalists claimed that “eight years should be long enough for wounds to close” and implied that the Williams sisters were complaining over nothing, while others seemed to think that the sisters’ main motive for their boycott was to hurt the event financially. It didn’t seem to even enter the thoughts of these writers that the Williams sisters may be avoiding the tournament because they were hurt by the racist way in which they were treated. This head-in-the-sand way of thinking only serves to encourage the senseless accusations, which are perpetually aimed at the Williams family – that they’re brutish, and arrogant, that they manipulate the system, and that they fix matches between them. It is this thinly veiled racism that must be eradicated from sport.

This is not a stand-alone incident, either. The lack of black football managers in the English game – there are currently three managing professional clubs – along with the presence of only seven Asian players in English football shows that the issue is far-reaching. FIFA have taken up their usual anti-racism position in advance of the World Cup, with President Sepp Blatter, of “tighter shorts for female footballers” fame, once again telling the media that his organisation will come down hard on racist fans: “If there’s any evidence of racism, the red card is not enough, we will have to eliminate the team from the competition or deduct points.” On the face of it, this is a powerful statement against racism, but only if it is backed up with actions, and I for one will not be holding my breath come June. This is, after all, the same head of FIFA who fined The Croatian Football Federation £14,920, a miniscule sum, for racist chanting by their fans against Emile Heskey in England’s 4-1 victory in 2008, and crassly referred to Man United’s treatment of Cristiano Ronaldo as “modern slavery”. Football, as well as sport in general, clearly still has some way to come in terms of tackling racism.

Josh Jackman

8 Comments on this post.
  • Quincel
    16 March 2010 at 22:41
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    Great article Josh, though only an American Studies student would use the phrase ‘pre-Abolition’ spelt perfectly to describe racial attacks!

  • Rob
    17 March 2010 at 02:59
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    Hmmmm. Surely there is racism in sport, as there is in society, or the state and its policies. But there are other factors to bring in to explain the lack of black football managers or Asian players. Firstly there are only about 90 or so jobs in the football league, and only a tiny minority of players go from playing to managing so quickly or easily. Therefore the number of potential black players who are of the age of managing (after many years spent in lower roles such as coaching) is going to be smaller as there was less black players in the 1970s as there is now, multiply that with the much more penentrating racism experienced back then and therefore ethnic penalty recived for aspiring managers, then there would even be less. Dont get me wrong, theres racism in the stands, the boardroom and behind the scenes, but im certain that in time it will begin to change. As with Asian players in the football league, im sure racism has its part to play, but I would take a stab in the dark and suggest that maybe the proportion of people classed as Asian who play competitive football are a lower proportion in percentile than people classed as black or white. As I said, racism in sport, as in other areas of life is still an issue, but its not so clear. And I think that if we are to tackle it, we cant lazily go into statistics without the proper context.

    Finally as for you bringing up Fifa describing Man Utd’s treatment of Ronaldo as ‘moderny slavery’ I dont see at all what this has to do with the rest of the article. Sure its a stupid and insensitive comment, but somehow indicative about racism or racist attitudes????????????????

  • Josh Jackman
    17 March 2010 at 15:14
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    Thank you for your comments, Rob; feedback is always appreciated. Your point about there being less black players in the 70’s and 80’s is true, but even if the trend went as you suggested, the number of black managers should still be higher by this point. There are many, many black managers every year who are turned down from potential jobs, and that is something we as sports lovers should be trying to address. As for the issue of Asian players, you were, as you said, taking a stab in the dark with your assumption. There are twice as many Asian people in Britain as black people, and yet there are hardly any in the professional game. You have simply repeated the widespread perception that Asian people generally aren’t as keen on playing football as black and white people, which is simply untrue. For more information, please refer to this website:

    Expecting that racism will fade out over the next twenty years or so is a fair impression, but we are not going to get rid of discrimination through just waiting for it to go away. Sport as a whole needs to be pro-active, not apathetic, in its approach to racism. As for Blatter’s comment about Man Utd’s treatment of Cristiano Ronaldo, I would say that “insensitive” is the mildest possible way of describing it. Comparing Man Utd paying Ronaldo ten of thousands of pounds every week, and not wanting him to leave the club in exchange, to the hundreds of years of black slavery all over the world is incredibly offensive, and is just one more reason why Sepp Blatter should not be head of FIFA. Also, please don’t use so many question marks; it doesn’t add anything, and it just looks obnoxious. Thank you again for your comments.

  • Rob
    17 March 2010 at 17:16
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    Thanks for your response. I was rather anxious about taking that stab in the dark, as I fully knew that it was an assumption. Is there any statistics about how many people classed as asian play competative football in the UK compared with people classed as white and black. As the link you sent me was interesting but just mentioned population percentages, which doesnt correspond to number of people playing, which is the true mark of how my disparity there is in terms of numbers in the football league. Of course I would of expected more than a tiny 7 and im sure the ethnic penalty has its part to play, but just because 4% of the UK population is as asian doesnt mean 4% of league footballers would be asian.

    With black managers, The truth is that, despite a long history of racism in football, a significant number of black players finally came to the fore in the 80s and 90s. It is only in recent years that these players have hung up their boots and even considered a career in management. I’ll conceed that we might expect more in the year 2010, but the backlog of racism experienced and thereby limiting black players/managers is still having its effect by a delayed reation. And of course your right to say that many potential black managers are turned down, racism is going to be one of those. I certainly appreciate your piece in highlighting disparity and challenging comfortable assumptions about racism in sport be a thing of the past, it is a little bit more complex than the way you presented it, im sure that the word count limit probably meant you couldnt delve deeper into the issue, so simple figures could only be stated.

    “black slavery ”
    The fact you made that instant connection means you equated being black with being a slave, and slavery as a entirely black word. It isnt and it wasnt, using the word slavery in an insensitive context is just that, accusations of racism are usually from colour conscious people. Not all slaves were black and if you were black it didnt mean you were a slave. Slavery still exists today, all over the world, even here in the UK. I would be cautious about always making the link between the word slavery and black, as it turns people into eternal victims unable to shake off their oppressed status.

  • Rob
    17 March 2010 at 17:30
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    Blah. Bad englund there. Some corrections
    “and slavery as a entirely black word”
    and slavery as a word which always conjours up the image of racism and black people.

    “using the word slavery in an insensitive context is just that, accusations of racism are usually from colour conscious people”
    Using the word slavery is just an insensitive action, not necessarily anything more, accusations of racism when using the word slavery like that usually come from overly colour conscious people.

    “and if you were black it didnt mean you were a slave”
    and if you were black it didnt necessarily mean you were a slave or seen as one.

    Sorry about that

  • silicon sally
    17 March 2010 at 18:54
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    not sure what this article’s saying really. the two examples cited seem to be tenous arguments that racism is still prevalent in sport, as you seem to imply. the williams sisters were booed at indian wells because richard williams pulled venus out of the semi final and people felt it was because she was being rested for a grand slam, and the match was being fixed for her sister. only richard williams claimed they were booed for racial reasons, a claim that in hindsight seems reckless since they have never recieved any racial abuse since. quite the opposite in fact. as for the football managers situation, you have to remember racism was only tackled (in the majority) amongst players 10-20 years ago. most managers come from players so it is natural that it will take time for black players to become managers. the theory you put forward that the lack of black managers is evidence of continuing racism is at best, far-fetched. perhaps the most important point in all this, which doesn’t really come across in the article, is that for all the isolated instances of racism, racism in sport has come a very long way.

  • Josh Jackman
    17 March 2010 at 23:28
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    Rob, thanks for your comments and questions, and I’ll do my best to address them. Your point that 4% of the British population being Asian shouldn’t necessarily equate to 4% of professional footballers being Asian is quite right, because of course, life doesn’t work that logically. However, the fact that “less than 1% of the hundreds of kids at Premier League academies are British Asians” (source: Times Online), coupled with the presence of only about half a dozen professional Asian footballers, out of the literally thousands who play in the four divisions of English football, is appalling, and should be an afront to all football fans. It is surely impossible to argue that this isn’t a serious problem, and one which needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

    The point you put forward about the “backlog of racism” is a valid one, but we need to acknowledge that this is not an excuse that can be used indefinitely. It will undoubtedly be a gradual process, but I think there’s more that could, and should be done by the FA and FIFA, to encourage black managers into the game, and change perceptions within the game.

    Please don’t jump to conclusions. I don’t associate being black with being a slave, and I certainly don’t hold the misconception that all blacks were slaves, or that all slaves were black. One would certainly be justified in seeing Sepp Blatter’s comment as offensive to all past and present slaves. However, slavery is primarily associated in the collective modern conscience (I would argue; you’re entitled to disagree) with black slavery, and even if it is not, Blatter’s comment showed him as crass, horrifically insensitive, and with more money than integrity. Using the word slavery in such a way as Blatter did is extremely offensive to all former slaves and their descendants, including, but certainly not limited to, black people. Thanks again for your feedback.

  • Josh Jackman
    18 March 2010 at 00:04
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    Sally, I completely agree with your point that sport has come a long way in dealing with racism. As an Arsenal fan, I’ve seen Patrick Vieira lift the FA Cup trophy, and Thierry Henry become a bona fide footballing legend. I’m also happy to say that I’ve never experienced any instances of racism at a match. Unfortunately, there was not enough space in the article to detail all the really positive steps which British football as a whole has taken towards eliminating racism from the game, but I completely agree with what you said on that point.

    However, the lack of black managers in the English game is very much an issue, and one which should receive more attention. The common explanation put forward, which you voiced, is that if we just wait, then eventually black managers who were players 10-20 years ago will have qualified, and will get jobs. This certainly makes sense on the surface, but one must consider the fact that “just two of the nine most highly-qualified black coaches in the country currently have jobs in the league”, and also that “less than 1% of senior coaching staff at the 92 league clubs are black” (Source: BBC Sport). How does one explain this, if not through racism? I would never want to baselessly accuse people of discrimination, but the facts speak for themselves. There is enough evidence to draw the firm conclusion that discrimination against black managers and coaches is a very real and very troubling issue in football. The Times puts it much more eloquently than I do, if you’re interested:

    Thank you for your comments, and please don’t hesitate if you have anything else which you’d like to discuss about the article.

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