From cricket to football: Sport takes a knee, turns a corner in fight against racism
Earlier this week, former West Indies cricketer Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first Black woman to play for England, delivered a powerful message on racism during the broadcast of the opening Test of a three-match series between England and the West Indies, delving deeply into racism and their personal experiences with it throughout their commentary.
“What people need to understand is that this thing stems from hundreds of years ago. The dehumanisation of the black race is where it started,” Holding said. Talking about historical prejudices, Holding cited the example of Judas’ portrayal as dark-skinned, in contrast to the image of Jesus as ‘pale-skinned, blond hair, blue eyes’.
The Test match itself saw players from both sides offering their solidarity to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that has gathered steam across the world following the killing of George Floyd in the US. Both sets of players took a knee and those from the visiting Caribbean side also sported black gloves on their raised fists, a la Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic ‘black power salute’ from the 1968 Olympics.
It was a powerful moment for a sport that began in conquered lands as an exclusive privilege of the British and then became a tool to prove the racial superiority of the colonisers over the colonised. Little did the Imperialists know just how passionately their game would be embraced by their colonial subjects.
The West Indies team, formed from Caribbean countries at the heart of a flourishing slave trade during colonial times, has been one of the pioneers of modern day cricket. Holding himself was one of the team’s leading lights when they dominated the sport during the 70s and 80s, beginning with the 1976 Test tour to England, where, in response to the England captain Tony Greig saying that he would make the West Indies players “grovel”, the Caribbean side unleashed fast bowling and aggressive batting of unprecedented ferocity.
Given this context, cricket’s public endorsement of BLM during the England-West Indies Test is a moment of reckoning.
Holding’s recent comments on ‘education’, with regards to racism, come at a time when the BLM movement is helping generate some difficult conversations on society and in sport. Cricket has complex histories in the countries where it is popular. Its modern-day popularity in former colonies is a public relations legacy of a British empire responsible for centuries of oppression. In England itself, there are calls for authorities to look into the under-representation of black or mixed-race players in domestic cricket.
In India, the sport was initially advocated by local elites loyal to the British Raj before it gained mass popularity. Today, the historical imbalances of Indian society are somewhat reflected in the country’s national cricket team; once the reserve of royalty and the upper class, now the symbol of small town might. When the Economic & Political Weekly published a study in 2018 on the under-representation of Dalit players in the Indian men’s cricket team, it was widely slammed on social media.
Former Indian cricketer Mohammed Kaif termed it ‘journalism to spread hatred’ and many others in the cricket fraternity joined in the witch-hunt. The fact does remain, however, that only four of India’s 296 men’s Test cricketers till date have been Dalits, a disproportionately low representation for a community that forms just over one-sixth of India’s population.
The general consensus, it seems, is that the lack of professional players from the Dalit community in the one sport that enjoys mass appeal across almost all parts of India, is not worth looking into. Will international cricket’s show of solidarity for BLM and the conversation around racism also trickle down to localised prejudices, like in the case of caste in India?
A change is coming
In many major sports across the world, athletes are calling for systemic changes to tackle racism. While real changes may take time to arrive, BLM’s biggest contribution to sport is arguably empowering more athletes to raise their voices in support of racial equality, forcing many sports administrators to loosen restrictions on political protests by athletes.
This is a year that began with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), handing out rules banning athletes from “kneeling, fist-raising, or any political messaging” at the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics. That’s akin to picking the legacy of Avery Brundage, the American IOC president from 1952 to 1972, a Nazi sympathiser who zealously advocated for Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Games. The first time a gloved fist was raised in protest against racism, it was at the 1968 Mexico Games, when the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium when the national anthem played. Brundage expelled the two athletes from the Olympics, and ensured that their careers came to an end.
Times have changed. FIFA, UEFA (football), ICC (cricket), PGA Tour (golf) and many others have actively supported BLM, choosing not to classify it as a political protest.
“It hit me today that the worst thing I could say pertaining to Black Lives Matter, police brutality and systemic racism is nothing. The worst thing I can say is absolutely nothing, stay in silence, stand on the sideline and continue to just watch,” said Tony Finau, American golfer of Polynesian descent, in a video posted on social media last month. It is a sentiment that has reverberated across many athletes around the world.
Football’s struggles with racism
The world’s most popular sport, football, too has thrown its weight behind the movement against racism. While England’s Premier League has proactively promoted BLM, players and clubs in other leagues too have taken different initiatives in support of it.
In Italy’s Serie A, which has been plagued by frequent racist incidents over the years, black players haven’t shied away from extending their solidarity. Before the coronavirus pandemic, there were already a series of incidents this year and the last. Racist chanting from the stands has been a constant at many stadiums across Italy.
Inter Milan’s Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku, who took a knee after scoring a goal last month, was targeted with racist monkey chants when his side played at Cagliari earlier in the season. Not only did Cagliari escape any sanction, Inter’s own fan group ‘Curva Nord’ wrote to Lukaku defending the actions of Cagliari fans, terming the chants as gamesmanship and as not being racist.
A few months prior to the incident, Cagliari fans had directed similar monkey chants at then-Juventus youngster Moise Kean. The player went on to score a goal and he celebrated in front of those same fans by standing still and extending his arms. Strangely, Kean didn’t receive much support from his club. Then-Juve coach Max Allegri condemned Kean’s celebration and senior teammate Leonardo Bonucci said ‘the blame is 50-50’ because Kean chose to celebrate in front of rival fans.
Former Man City star Mario Balotelli was not spared either in his own country. The 29-year-old striker has faced racist chanting on more than one occasion but like Kean and Lukaku, has struggled to find backing from his own fans. The chairman of his current club Brescia, Massimo Cellino, was criticised last year when he made a racist comment on Balotelli after the striker’s reported feud with then-coach Fabio Grosso. “What can I say on Balotelli? He is black, he’s trying to clear himself,” Cellino had said. Brescia would later term the comment as a ‘joke’, while Cellino claimed he couldn’t be racist because he is catholic.
As Jamaica-born England star Raheem Sterling can attest to, racism doesn’t always come from fans or club officials. Just until a couple of years back, Sterling was a regular target of some mainstream British newspapers. ‘Prem rat of the Caribbean’, ‘footie idiot’, ‘pampered star’, ‘obscene’, ‘greedy’ are some of the terms used to describe Sterling in some of the UK’s most prominent newspapers – the most regular offender being the right-leaning The Sun.
Chelsea fans’ “We’re racist, we’re racist and that’s the way we like it” chant while pushing a black man off a metro train in Paris in 2015 had sparked outrage and did briefly generate a debate on racism in English football. Five years later, BLM has helped reshape public debate around the same. This is indeed an opportunity for Europe’s big leagues to take concrete steps to tackle racism and set a precedent for the rest of the world.