Sport has the power to help us change, and it has a duty to utilise it


"History also teaches us that the highest profile sports haven't done enough to tackle this global disgrace. It mustn't make the same mistakes again."

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By Patrick Hook-Willers

Content Warning: This article includes reference to a Tweet containing highly offensive racist language.

This has been one of the most turbulent weeks in modern history, as the systemic racism faced by black people has become the focus of the world. The protests that started in the USA after the murder of George Floyd have moved throughout the world and at this moment, the good, just, loving minds of the human race are united behind the cause.

Sadly though this racism is so deeply entrenched in the backwards minds of millions that in time, these protests will end and the focus will slowly drift elsewhere. The highly privileged Instagram activists who only protest when it is popular, who only care when it can be seen, will return to their normal way of life while again turning a blind eye to the realities of our society. They will once again turn a blind eye to everyday, systemic racism.

This fight should not be abandoned, and to ensure that the billions across the globe that are able to enjoy the privilege of day-to-day without fear of racism keep standing alongside those who are systematically oppressed, sport can take a leading role.

Sport has long been a platform for protesting against injustice. In 1968, USA 200 metres medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised clenched fists during the medal ceremony and American national anthem, while shoeless, to protest racial discrimination. In 1973, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ to push for equality for women within both Tennis and wider society. In 2014, Basketball legend LeBron James warmed up in a t-shirt that displayed the phrase “I can’t breathe”, the last words of Eric Garner who was strangled to death while being restrained by NYPD officers in Staten Island, New York.

Those terrible words, “I can’t breathe”, are also the last words spoken by George Floyd. Little over a week ago he spoke those words over and over and over again, pleading for his life. People within the sporting world must emulate LeBron James and the countless sporting predecessors who have spoken out before them.

When the highest profile sports begin to return the stolen lives of Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, their fellow black citizens killed by racism and the systematically ingrained prejudice that keeps the fires of racism burning must be placed at the forefront of the agenda.

While the determination of white people to stand with those who are oppressed appears resolute at the moment, history teaches us that it will likely not remain that way. History also teaches us that the highest profile sports have not done enough to tackle this global disgrace. It mustn't make the same mistakes again.

On what feels like countless occasions, we have witnessed the racist abuse of black footballers in every area of the modern game, be that on the pitch or online. These repeated incidences have time and time again been met with pathetically weak leadership from governing bodies. Last year, UEFA fined the Bulgarian FA just £65,000 for the repeated, targeted abuse of black England players, and yet despite fans in England being well aware of both the abuse and the punishment, there remain countless incidents of racism within high profile football.

Not even a month ago now, while football hasn't been on, Arsenal and England legend Ian Wright received a string of racist messages to his Instagram account from a teenager to highlight the reality faced by black people in the sporting spotlight. The awful messages can be read here at your discretion. Wright received thousands of supportive tweets in the wake of the abuse, which shows the power that the sporting community has to help heal.

This abuse is from one person, on one platform, to a man followed by one million. This racism occurs on almost every single tweet, photo, and video posted by black sportspeople, many of whom have many millions more followers than Wright. The toll on a person is unimaginable for a man with my inherited, unearned privilege, but it is no surprise anymore. Both society and the governing bodies of sports have forced black sportspeople to endure these heinous abuses with their laughably poor example on punishments.

The NFL is perhaps the most prevalent example of failure in the fight against racism. In 2016, the NFL refused to back San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he knelt to protest racial discrimination during the obligatory pre-match US national anthem, as opposed to the customary standing. Kaepernick was vilified by fans across the nation for disrespecting the anthem, and newly elected President Donald Trump called on the NFL to “fire” him. At the close of the 2016 season, Kaepernick was without a club.

Many clubs, leagues, and bodies have joined the ongoing global protests, which is a good start at least, but like the rest of us they cannot be allowed to forget and move on to what has become the norm. If the infrequent displays of solidarity that happen before occasional matches were made to be of paramount importance, if they began to happen before every game, appeared in every advert break, instead of once or twice a year, then the desire for real change we are seeing now may be sustained.

One of the great unifying factors of the ongoing protests has been the tangible yearning of people of all races to finally listen, to really educate ourselves so that we are best prepared to fight for what is right.

Sport unifies us also. If every major sport with audiences of millions and billions shared this key information loudly, publicly, and frequently – we might stand a better chance of making all this anguish worthwhile.

We are entering into a new world in more ways than one, we must not waste this chance to make it a just one. Sport must lead the way with firm and decisive actions to keep the momentum for social change going, finally using its colossal power for unity, and succeed where our education system and our politicians have failed.