Maybe We’re Not As Bad Off As We Think: Racism and Sports, At Home and Abroad

Anthony Pic

By: David Anthony, Junior Editor

Let’s get one thing out of the way right out of the gates: racism has been and, to a lesser extent, still is a problem in the United States.  It’s undeniable.  There are literally countless video and audio clips from the past hundred or so years documenting racism in the United States.  No one is surprised by this fact.

Today the United States, while certainly not perfect, is doing better.  The battles fought from the 1860’s to the 1960’s and beyond have begun to pay off.  No more church bombings, no more riots.  It’s a good start.  In fact, people more often concern themselves with debates over climate change, fiscal cliffs, and whether to buy and iPhone or Droid.  In stark contrast to the times of the Civil Rights Movement only fifty years ago, racism is starting to become, for the most part, a non-issue.

This is particularly evident in the realm of organized sports.  A 2011 ESPN poll showed that, while 55% believed African Americans had achieved in society as a whole, 88% believed it had been achieved in sports.[1]   Further, the vast majority of the remaining claims had to deal claims dealt with coaching and administrative positions than with the actual athletes.[2]  Overall, 72% of those polled believed that sports united people across racial lines.

Such equality is also expressed in the participation rates among the most popular spots in the United States.  Today, Black athletes compose 45.8% of NCAA Division I football programs and 60.9% of the same basketball programs.[3] In professional sports, Black athletes represent 66% in the NFL and 60% in the NBA while Hispanic athletes make up nearly 30% of MLB players.  In short, long gone are the days when the integration of an athletics program is marked with controversy.[4]  Rather, the focus of sports is sports.

This, however, is not the case across the globe.  Internationally, particularly in the sport of soccer, racism is still a very large problem.  The culprits are somewhat surprising.  The vast majority of racist complaints in sport come from the paradigm of progressive thought, Europe.  Eastern Europe in particular has been the home to some of the more extreme racist views.  Reports of bananas being thrown at black players, monkey chants, and large groups of fans giving Nazi salutes and yelling “Sig heil” are particular causes for concern.[5]  The situation came to a head during summer 2012, when Poland and Ukraine co-hosted the quadrennial European soccer championships.  Problems started early when the BBC released a documentary, Stadiums of Hate, which presented the fan bases of the hosting nations and instances of extreme racism exhibited by them.[6]  Around that time, the families of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, two black players on the English national team, decided that they would not attend the tournament.[7]  Problems continued up to the start of the tournament, when members of the Holland national team were subjected to racist chants and abuse at the team’s first training session.[8]

In the Euro tournament alone, Spain, Russia, and Croatia were each fined for racial abuse from their fan-bases.[9] While the racism displayed was on a smaller scale, the evidence of the type of racism exhibited in Eastern Europe is troubling.  Further, such racism is not confined to the Eastern side of Europe.  During the 2011-2012 English soccer season, two heavily documented incidents of racism not from the fans, but the players, took the front pages.  Luis Suárez, a Uruguayan player for Liverpool F.C., and John Terry, an English player for Chelsea F.C. were both charged with racial abuse for comments made during matched directed at other players.[10]  Suárez served an 8-match ban[11] while Terry, though found not guilty by an English court, was found guilty by a Football Association panel and banned 4 games along with having the his captaincy of the English national team stripped.[12]

Other players in Western Europe have also found that their race does not always mesh with their profession.  Mario Balotelli, recently interviewed by TIME Magazine in Europe[13], has endured a slightly different experience.  While many players of African descent have been subjected to racism by the opposing fans, Balotelli has taken it from his own supporters.  Born to Ghanaian immigrants in Palermo, Italy, Balotelli was adopted at a young age by an Italian family and is the first black player ever to represent the Italian national team in international competition.[14]  Though his popularity in England has steadily grown, due in part to his mercurial talent and also to his off-field antics, Balotelli has endured racist chants from Italian fans, including “There’s no such thing as a black Italian” as well as racism in the media.[15]

While the governing bodies of European soccer have campaigned to wipe out racism in sports, the fact that such campaigns are even needed is telling.  Imagine the NFL or NBA having to tell the fans that they shouldn’t be racist.  Granted, part of the problem in Europe is that soccer, as the only prominent sport throughout, is starkly underrepresented by minority players.  A 2008 study[16] of English soccer showed that across the top three professional divisions, the number of black players never amounted to more than 19% across a league.[17]  Moreover, these statistics come from the country that is arguably most accepting of foreign and ethnically diverse players.

Europeans are not the only ones who have noticed a problem with racism in their beloved sport.  In a bit of an international role reversal, in October 2011 Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL, visited London and advanced the league’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when filling coaching or general manager positions, to the English Football Association.[18]  The rule has not been implemented and has drawn backlash from coaches in the league.[19]

This is but an overview of the issue, but does represent that the next time an American thinks on the problems and racial tensions faced in the sociopolitical world of United States, a good dose of medicine might be to turn on one of the many iterations of ESPN.  As the variety of sports play out in a never-ending cycle, take in the integration of modern, 21st century American sports and realize that if replacement refs or collegiate playoffs are the biggest news story, that’s a good thing.  It could be a lot worse.  And while this is not true in many facets of everyday life; in the case of sports, America ultimately got it right.


[2] Id.

[11] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Kassimeris, Christos.  European Football in Black and White: Tackling Racism in Football. Pg. 90.  Lexington Books. 2008.

[17] Id.

2 thoughts on “Maybe We’re Not As Bad Off As We Think: Racism and Sports, At Home and Abroad

  1. indytony January 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm Reply

    Thank you for pointing out the progress that has been made thanks to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, at least in one particular arena of society. It is important to see how far we’ve come even as we assess how far we have to go.

    I chose to write today on the racism that was and still is prevalent among some white Midwesterners. It’s called “Was He Only Dreaming?: Hoosier Perspectives on Martin Luther King”. I’d love for you to check it out and tell me what you think.

    • David Anthony January 22, 2013 at 4:31 pm Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Tony. I read your MLK post and the attached comments. If nothing else, I always enjoy learning of the various perspectives from across the nation, whether I agree with them or not. Being from Alabama, our society is largely homogeneous on many topics, and while this produces many of the features that I love more than anything else about the area, every silver lining has a cloud.

      With that in mind, reading about various views in Indiana as well as other parts of the country is not only informative, but also sobering. Often journalists, professors, politicians etc fret about how far behind some regions of the nation are compared to others in socially relevant areas. While I would think that the opinions covered in your post are of the minority, many people tend to forget the struggles that MLK and similar civil rights movements faced in northern and midwestern states. In hindsight, Alabama ultimately benefited from its trials during the civil rights movement and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if an MLK-esque figure had not stepped up to the plate…

      While it is certainly regrettable that the opinions from your post and racism remains within our great nation, I am and will ever be encouraged by our ability to carry on through our differences and to address our problems head on rather then sweep them under the rug, as many of the nations mentioned in my post do. One of the great things about the US is that we try to recognize our failures and work (albeit sometimes at snail’s pace) towards fixing them. -DA

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