“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being Black in America is tough.” That was LeBron’s response when his home was vandalised with racial slurs the night before the NBA Finals in 2017.
And he’s right – being Black in a white-dominated society is tough. In sports, being Black means being subjected to harassment and discrimination from teammates, opponents, and spectators. As LeBron pointed out, no achievement is enough to make you feel safe and protected.
But racism in sports is not always obvious. It can be in a regulation, a policy, or a seemingly benign decision. It can take the form of institutional racism, which neglects the Black experience, by making it part of an “all-encompassing” experience that serves only the dominant social group.
Hopefully through this blog, we can learn a lot about the Black experience, diversity, and inclusion that can be taken into your workplaces or promote the next steps to book in a BAME stakeholder engagement training.
But for now, to combat racism in sports, we need to be aware of how different types of racism can manifest themselves in the lives of Black athletes. Understanding how this affects Black athletes might help some people understand how this affects Black colleagues in the workplace.
Black footballers have always been facing discrimination on a public and private level. The recent events of Euro 2020 illustrate perfectly the double standards to which Black footballers have been subjected for years.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, and Jadon Sancho missed their penalty kicks in the Euro 2020 football final, many of us sensed what would happen next.
While Italy celebrated their win, the players were already receiving a torrent of racial abuse on social media. The abuse was condemned by England’s Football Association, Prince William and Boris Johnson, who said the “team deserves to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused.”
But this abuse wasn’t just online. The morning after the final, a mural honouring Rashford in his home city of Manchester was found vandalised with graffiti.
So, why do fans support Black players when they’re doing well and scoring goals, but abuse them when they don’t? Racial double standards are well entrenched in sports, and we can’t ignore them anymore.
Social media is not the only place where Black players receive disparate treatment. Press has also played its role in fuelling racial discrimination.
A recent example? The way Daily Mail framed two footballers – Marcus Rashford, who is Black and Phil Foden, who is white. Rashford was presented by The Mail as a greedy, cash-rich footballer, who spends his money on luxury homes, whereas Phil Foden was described as a caring, humble son, who bought a new £2m home for his family. We can clearly see that Black players face much more scrutiny over their financial and personal decisions.
Racism against Black players can also be found in the way they are talked about in the media. A recent study analysed 1,009 comments of praise given to footballers during 30 hours of BBC and ITV coverage during the FIFA World Cup in 2018. The results showed that Black players were mostly praised for their perceived physical prowess and natural athleticism, while white players were praised for their intelligence and character.
These stereotypes can be traced back to the 1800s when the pseudo race sciences emerged. Theories, like social Darwinism, facilitated a view that Black people, unlike white people, were inherently suited to physical activities and not cognitive tasks. The same kind of logic applies to Black players, who are thought in this case to be good at their job because of their natural, physical attributes rather than their cognitive abilities.
Did you know that there are swimming caps designed specifically for natural black hair? Afro-textured hair and Caucasian hair are very different. And this is probably something that FINA, the International Swimming Association, didn’t take into consideration when it dismissed the Soul Cap from the Olympics.
While the original cap was created to prevent Caucasian hair from flowing into the face when swimming, the Soul Cap was designed for swimmers with long, thick, and voluminous hair.
According to FINA, the caps didn’t fit “the natural form of the head” and to their “best knowledge the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require caps of such size and configuration.”
As expected, this decision sparked a lot of backlash. The founders of Soul Cap, Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen released a statement on Instagram talking about issues around exclusion and the sport. “FINA’s recent dismissal could discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport as they progress through local, county and national competitive swimming,” they wrote.
So, what is the “natural form of the head”? And why are some “natural forms” more important than others? It’s time to reconsider the notion of “natural,” if we really want to build an inclusive sports environment.
Testosterone is a driver of red blood cell count, and the more red blood cells a person has, the more oxygen they can carry to their muscles. This allows them to run faster for longer amounts of time.
According to the new Differences of Sex Development (DSD) regulations that were introduced in 2018, athletes who have high blood testosterone levels cannot compete in women’s races from 400m to one mile in distance in international competition. So, why are discussing testosterone levels and regulations?
Simply put, different bodies have different hormonal profiles. However, Namibian runners Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, two of the fastest 400-meter runners in the world, were barred from running in the 400 meters at the Olympics this year because of their high natural testosterone levels. Both athletes weren’t aware of this condition.
In 2018, Caster Semenya, the two-time Olympic champion, was disqualified from competing in the 800m because of the same restrictions. Semenya has launched legal appeals in various courts, calling the rules unfair and discriminatory.
One can only wonder, based on what evidence are these regulations created and enforced to all athletes, no matter what their profile is? Is it “fair competition” to ask athletes to lower their testosterone levels with medication, with all the risks that are entailed?
And where is the line between a testosterone advantage and other natural, genetic advantages? When the tools used favour a racial group over another, “fair competition” has clearly failed and something needs to be done about it.
From harassment in the online world to institutional racism, Black athletes are facing lots of challenges. They have to fight to get recognised, they have to face double standards, and learn to work in an environment, where they’re the centre of attention only when things go wrong.
So what can we do about it? How can we, as individuals, do our part to contribute towards a more inclusive environment, where all voices will be heard and valued?
“The personal is political” has long been recognised as the definitive slogan of second-wave feminism, for a good reason. It underscored the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures.
Why am I referring to feminism now? Because this slogan illustrates perfectly that when Black stories are brought to the public sphere, they can have an important, political impact.
Black athletes can experience feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety. Being a victim of racial abuse has severe consequences on their psychological and emotional well-being. We need to create an environment, where athletes will feel confident to open up, be vulnerable, and share their stories. We need to hear and understand their stories to become better.
It’s not an easy thing to do. Personal trauma is difficult to narrate. Talking about it comes at a price. But by speaking out about the impact of racism on their professional and personal lives, athletes can successfully challenge racial discrimination in the industry.
When Naomi Osaka chose well-being over the pursuit of a Grand Slam title, she brought mental health awareness to an entirely new level. Osaka revealed on her Instagram profile that she has suffered from “long bouts” of depression since defeating Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open.
Mental health in sports has been hidden behind a curtain of stigma and discrimination. What Osaka did was to open up and make her personal experience, political.
Along with sharing their personal experience, athletes can empower change in other ways as well. Besides being role models for their fans, research shows that they can have a positive impact on society. The “Mo Salah effect” is one example of this.
According to a Stanford University study, the arrival of Egyptian-born Mo Salah, a Muslim man, at Liverpool Football Club has contributed to a decline in anti-Muslim racism from Liverpool fans, as well as Islamophobia in the Merseyside area of Liverpool.
Opening up the discussion about race-related issues, engaging with different perspectives, and embracing them can be a driving force for change. Social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #TakeAKnee show that even though there is still a long way to go, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
However, allowing non-Black people to finally witness and comprehend the racism that Black athletes endure can also be a way to open the conversations around diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It also will help many companies to focus on BAME stakeholder engagement training.