Black mark for racism reform

In the fight against racism are there any more reassuring words than ”the sport’s governing body has issued a statement”?

It is impertinent to speculate on any appendices Martin Luther King might have added to his Lincoln Memorial speech, given the benefit of hindsight, but it seems unlikely he’d make room for ”I have a dream that 45 whole years from now, when pictures of blacked-up people baying at Lewis Hamilton emerge, the international motor sport federation will issue a statement saying there might possibly be trouble if it happens again”.

Another week, another chance to gauge how our fine governing bodies are combating racism, with everyone’s favourite test case still England’s 2004 friendly against Spain in Madrid.

Yet what’s often overlooked is that it was Fifa that imposed the paltry £44 750 fine on the Spanish FA for the racist chanting. It was also Fifa that fined the Cameroonian FA £86 000 for wearing the wrong kit in the Africa Cup of Nations that same year.

And it was Uefa’s then-chief executive, Lars-Christer Olsson, who announced Thierry Henry should hug Luis Aragonés, who had called him a ”black shit”. According to Lars, this would ”surpass any anti-racist initiative we’ve held before”. As though that was difficult.

So what we might euphemistically call an ”attitude problem” is not peculiar to Spain. Fifa, for instance, seems riddled with it.

Indeed, anyone who thinks the English can tut-tut in absolute moral authority should note an interview with Joleon Lescott, cited here previously, after both he and Tim Howard reported Newcastle’s Emre to the FA for alleged racial abuse of their Everton teammate Joseph Yobo. Both players were strongly advised to say nothing publicly and, when they differed on whether he had said ”fucking nigger” or ”fucking Negro”, the FA found the charge unproven.

Lescott said he ”didn’t agree with how it was dealt with. It felt like we were on trial as much as Emre. I felt hurt by it, having gone to the trouble of … making a stand.”

We seem to need a more radical solution than waiting on governing bodies to act on racism. Why should people be satisfied with this pace? At this rate black athletes will be taking abuse another 45 years from now, while some governing body or other churns out a feeble press release saying what a shame it all is.

Direct action is one alternative. Interviewed just after the game in Madrid, Rio Ferdinand said he’d considered walking off the pitch. ”It’s not the players’ decision but if the boss had said ‘That’s it’, I would have been happy to come off,” he said. ”I don’t think anybody in England or the England team would have blamed us.”

Such a protest would have been eloquent and historic, but it’s plain to see what happens when such decisions are left to managers and owners. Perhaps their overwhelming whiteness has something to do with it, but it’s mostly just that this is business. Ron Dennis is unlikely to withdraw labour to make some political point.

It is extraordinarily brave that athletes even consider individual acts of protest. In 2005 the Messina defender, Marc Zoro, threatened to halt a Serie A game after enduring racist taunts. He was persuaded not to by his manager, as was Samuel Eto’o the next year when he suffered similar torment from Real Zaragoza fans.

But resentment seethes beneath the reluctantly biddable surface. Zaragoza were fined just £448 after their fans racially abused a Real Betis player and Zaragoza’s then-striker, Ewerthon, said of the Eto’o incident: ”We are here to work and if things carry on like this it will be impossible. The Spanish federation has to start taking proper measures,” he said, ”and we as black players also have to act.”

All over the world you can find athletes who feel the speed of change to be pretty glacial. Some just vow to play on, ignore it. Some probably wish Lewis Hamilton would win the Spanish Grand Prix and come over all Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium. There is no one right way and those who aver that black athletes ”should just be like Tiger Woods” betray themselves as the worst kind of prescriptive, shut-up-and-play ”progressives”.

John Carlos himself has called for athletes of all colours to ”step up to society”, saying bigotry is ”just more cosmetically disguised” than it was in 1968. It was the bigots who were disguised with cosmetics at the Circuit de Catalunya, but it is the FIA’s weak reaction that chimes most closely with that sentiment. — Â

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