Racism and sport: A mirror of our society

Gordon P Smith Roar Guru

By Gordon P Smith, Gordon P Smith is a Roar Guru

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    Although I live and breathe Aussie Rules, I am an American citizen, and have lived my entire life in the western United States. It’s also relevant to this article to point out that I am beige in colour, and my ancestry is mostly from the British Isles, many centuries ago.

    I am old enough to remember the tail end of the 1960s in America, and how race relations between “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners,” as Martin Luther King Jr put it, evolved from fire hoses and the National Guard in place to integrate Deep South elementary schools into what in some places is still an uneasy détente.

    Most of the nation, however, reached the point where if its citizens weren’t colour blind per se, they were at least colour-tolerant for the most part.

    In 2008, we elected a black President. The major topic of that campaign was not his colour but his inexperience. However, his eloquence and his message of cooperation between rival factions saw him win against two good candidates from the opposition party, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

    We patted ourselves on the back that America had finally overcome its racist past. Our most popular singer was Beyonce, a black woman. Our most popular entertainment figure was Oprah Winfrey, a black woman. Our most popular sports figure was LeBron James, a black man.

    LeBron James NBA Finals MVP

    (Image: NBA)

    Then Donald Trump happened.

    More to the point, then the significant percentage of white people who’d been swallowing their resentment of their loss of apparent dominance and privilege in American society found a candidate who spoke their language: it’s the fault of all those darker-skinned people. Mexicans. Muslims. The Chinese.

    They’re taking your jobs, they’re stealing money you should be getting, they’re ruining American trade, they want to force you to follow their laws instead of ours. And while most intelligent US voters recognised the racist code words for what they were, there were enough voters in key states who heard the call that still filled their hearts, that no one else had dared say out loud, that legitimised their racist feelings.

    So Donald Trump was elected President of the United States over an already weak opponent who was saddled by foreign influences with a fictional scandal. (Observers noted how quickly the cries to “lock her up!” stopped after Election Day; there was nothing there to lock her up for.)

    That scandal, the racism bubbling under the surface, and (ironically) just a hint of sexism produced the upset; the fact that voters were in some cases ashamed to admit they were voting for an unsavoury candidate explained the surprise to the pollsters.

    It turns out we are a racist nation after all. We just hid it well for a few years. As an American, I feel the need to apologise to Australia and to every other country in the world for electing an incompetent racist who knows almost literally nothing about world relations and may blow the world up before he realises nuclear weapons aren’t toys. Believe me, a great many of us are trying to rectify the situation.

    But if you’d been to sporting events in my country, especially in certain parts of my country, you would have figured that out for yourself long before last fall’s election.

    It showed up again on Monday night, at a Major League baseball game when Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones (who is black) was the target of “racial epithets”, including many shouts of what we euphemistically like to call “the N-word”, as if making it sound cute makes it more acceptable.

    Jones also had a bag of peanuts hurled at him while he approached the dugout after an inning in the outfield.

    Indigenous athletes in Australia would immediately recognise the aftermaths as well: reports of something like 60 arrests in the ballpark after the incident, followed by lots of official statements like “we have zero tolerance for this sort of thing”, other athletes telling about similar experiences in the same location (Boston, in this case), and calls for fill-in-the-blank-solution-du-jour (education, in-park conversations about race relations, advertising, and invoking the name of integration pioneer Jackie Robinson one more time).

    Ironically, the Boston Red Sox has an all-black outfield, at least on occasion, featuring Chris Young, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley. Boston fans don’t seem to mind them. Maybe they’re the ‘good ones’.

    While most issues of racial conflict in the US happen in the south-east, where slavery was concentrated before its de jure elimination in 1865, there are other pockets like Boston where racial tolerance has been curiously low over the decades.

    The Boston Celtics, perennial champs of the NBA in the 1950s and 1960s, featured black stars like KC Jones, Sam Jones, and the legendary Bill Russell, yet the fans favoured “scrappy” players like John Havlicek or Tommy Heinsohn, good players who happened to share their heritage… players they “connected to”.

    Russell famously refused to return to Boston after his retirement for decades because of the way he felt the city treated him.

    When I read stories about Eddie Betts or Patrick Ryder being marginalised by idiot fans at an AFL game, I can’t help but reflect on the similar shortcomings of my own nation.

    Eddie Betts of the Crows

    (AAP Image/Ben Macmahon)

    For every “King Kong” comment by an Eddie McGuire, we had Howard Cosell exclaiming “Look at that monkey run!”

    For every Allan McAlister saying (after Nicky Winmar’s shirt-raising declaration) that “Aboriginal players were welcome at the (Collingwood) club provided that they behave like white people,” there’s an Adolph Rupp, legendary coach of the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team, declaring there wasn’t any team with black players on their roster that could beat his, implying that blacks weren’t smart enough.

    And somehow, they weren’t smart enough to play quarterback in the NFL, either. My personal favourite tale along those lines was an idiot reporter asking Doug Williams, the first black man to quarterback a Super Bowl team, “How long have you been a black quarterback?” Williams’ quick-witted answer? “All my life.”

    For every Adam Goodes who draws fire for his assertive stance in defence of his beliefs on race relations, we have a Colin Kaepernick who suffered the consequences of a league which doesn’t want to touch the controversy, mostly because, frankly, Kaepernick isn’t as talented a player as Goodes was.

    And obviously it isn’t confined to our two countries – an English Premier League referee using epithets against Chelsea players in 2012, a protest by black players the same year against English captain John Terry for similar name-calling of another player. Head to Wikipedia and look up “Racism in association football”, and you’ll find samples from literally dozens of countries, seemingly every nation that plays the sport.

    But sport is simply a mirror of society. The discrimination and hatred you see inside the stadium is only the tip of the iceberg of the sin-filled culture we live in. But it’s the tip of the iceberg that warns us to avoid the trouble that the rest of it causes.

    When a target of racism has an identifiable face, as often happens in sport – especially when it’s a player as well-liked as Eddie Betts – it provides a target for our emotional response, a motivation to do something about the problem.

    It’s much easier for us to care about Betts and Ryder than it is the thousands of faceless, nameless indigenous who undoubtedly deal with far worse hatred in Australia every day. It’s much easier for us to care about Adam Jones than it is the thousands of faceless, nameless blacks who I guarantee deal with far worse than some epithets at their jobs.

    So, while you’re motivated, do something. The easiest thing is to simply set a good example. No preparation needed, no money required. Live the Golden Rule, and love your neighbour as you love yourself.

    In this rapidly shrinking world, where an old man from Idaho in the US can scribble his thoughts in an Australian website, everyone is your neighbour.

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    The Crowd Says (59)

    • Roar Rookie

      May 5th 2017 @ 11:52am
      Dan said | May 5th 2017 @ 11:52am | ! Report

      Brilliant piece Gordon – and I agree entirely.
      It’s deplorable the way mankind treats each other just because of pigments found in each of our bodies, and it’s a product of fear.
      Hopefully as we educate our children and their children we will eventually see all bigotry gone, but alas, currently it seems a pipe dream and requires individuals to say enough is enough and for the collective masses to agree with them before any meaningful change will happen.

    • May 5th 2017 @ 12:44pm
      Pope Paul VII said | May 5th 2017 @ 12:44pm | ! Report

      Well written Gordy.

      So many things. I think the missing ingredient in combatting racism and outing the bigots is as Dan intimates, education.

      In this brown land the history of the dispossession (a nice way of saying stealing and murdering) of the indigenous is barely acknowledged. If it is told at all it is in the vaguest of terms. Here we are honouring war anniversaries like the Battle of the Coral Sea but our country’s own war is a secret.

      It’s not just a colour issue either. The Irish and their descendants in Australia suffered much discrimination, flamed by English and colonial politicians racial hatred. One of the lesser known facts of WW1 is that many irish chose not to die for the English Empire, on account of having their country occupied for 300 years and the population halved due to English near genocidal policies during the potato famine. Sectarianism lasted until the 1960s here. It’s been a while but up until the last decade it was common for older non irish aussie descendants to say “that’s a good irish name!” (when hearing my name in business dealings) somewhat surprised and pleased that I was a normal person, for an Irishman!

      • May 5th 2017 @ 4:12pm
        I hate pies said | May 5th 2017 @ 4:12pm | ! Report

        The English even persecuted their own! If any other people were priced into boats in chains, shipped around the other side of the world and, if they didn’t die of disease on the way, beaten and whipped and forced to do hard labour for years with little chance of ever going home, all for a minor “crime” there would be a major outcry.
        Let’s not pretend for a minute that English were less brutal on their own. It was a cruel world in colonial times and many were on the receiving end of that cruelty.

        • May 6th 2017 @ 1:28pm
          Pope Paul VII said | May 6th 2017 @ 1:28pm | ! Report

          Too true regarding the english penal system on the poor, unquestionably brutal.

          Colonialism was a whole different level though. The Irish population approximately 8 million in 1841, by the end of the decade it was 4 million. A minimum of 750,000 starving to death. The pop today is only 5.2 mil South and North.

          During WW2 about 4 million died in the Bengal famine.

          There are many more examples.

          I realise many european nations were as bad and worse.

      • May 6th 2017 @ 8:57am
        BrainsTrust said | May 6th 2017 @ 8:57am | ! Report

        You can include in the discrimination against the Irish the lack of acknowledgement that AFL is really derived from the preferences of the Irish who played a game called caid for centuries. The Americans had dodgy historians that tried to make out baseball was invented in America, and in a similiar vein you have Geoffrey Blainey who did the same to deny the Irish their proper place in AFL history.

        • May 6th 2017 @ 1:30pm
          Pope Paul VII said | May 6th 2017 @ 1:30pm | ! Report

          Thanks Brains. Typical Blainey.

    • May 5th 2017 @ 12:45pm
      I ate pies said | May 5th 2017 @ 12:45pm | ! Report

      Unfortunately racism will only get worse as we are more and more defined by the tribe that we belong to and our ancestry. The strides forward that have been made in the last few decades are quickly being reversed.

      • Roar Guru

        May 5th 2017 @ 12:56pm
        Paul D said | May 5th 2017 @ 12:56pm | ! Report

        The irony of people emphasizing that they’re 1/16 aboriginal or what have you and claiming they’re combatting racism – while subconsciously entrenching the division – appears to be beyond the scope of understanding for most undergraduates of sociology courses these days

        • Roar Guru

          May 5th 2017 @ 1:04pm
          Rick Disnick said | May 5th 2017 @ 1:04pm | ! Report

          I’ve always questioned the longterm benefits of the ‘indigenous’ round for this very reason.

          To me it reinforces racial segregation.

          Many will disagree with my opinion there. Totally understand.

          • May 5th 2017 @ 2:07pm
            AR said | May 5th 2017 @ 2:07pm | ! Report

            Yeah it’s an interesting one.

            Ultimately, though, it’s an event now driven by the indigenous community themselves. It’s a celebration and appreciation of indigenous culture within the game. Ask any indigenous player and they say they’re honoured by it.

            So who am I to suggest otherwise?

            Awareness and appreciation – tick
            Money in the coffers – tick
            Enjoyable spectacle for everyone – tick

            Hard to argue with.

            • Roar Guru

              May 5th 2017 @ 3:13pm
              Rick Disnick said | May 5th 2017 @ 3:13pm | ! Report

              It goes to the very heart of what continues to drive a wedge through society (especially for indigenous people).

              I don’t see an indigenous player i.e. Eddie Betts. I see a guy (like myself) playing Aussie Rules, whom I love to watch — it’s as simple as that.

              The day we no longer need an indigenous round and can celebrate ALL our players, irrespective of race, is the day racism has been conquered.

              • May 5th 2017 @ 4:16pm
                Alicesprings said | May 5th 2017 @ 4:16pm | ! Report

                Interesting perspective Rick. I prefer to look at it in the context of a celebration and something the AFL should be commended for.

                The kids in my class – all of who are Indigenous – are transfixed by Indigenous Round.

                Footy means so much to them. All the more as it is one of the few arenas in which they are indeed able/allowed/encouraged to compete in – and on a level playing field.

                Depends on who you are and your context but I would say it does the absolute opposite of ‘driving a wedge.’

              • Roar Guru

                May 5th 2017 @ 4:55pm
                Rick Disnick said | May 5th 2017 @ 4:55pm | ! Report

                To be honest Alice, I’m torn between my comments.

                In one instance, I firmly believe it perpetuates the cycle of the ‘us vs them’ mentality, which is why I really dislike the Indigenous vs Allstars concept. Imagine in the USA, instead of having an Allstars match between East vs West in the Basketball, it’s Whites vs Blacks!

                Recognition of indigenous culture is completely different though. If it empowers people to engage in the community that otherwise would not (like in your examples), I’m all for it. However, longterm I believe it does more harm than good.

                Good discussion.

              • May 6th 2017 @ 1:55pm
                Nick J said | May 6th 2017 @ 1:55pm | ! Report

                Rick, I think you make a good point; “I see a guy like myself…”

                That’s one of the perspectives we want people to hold.

                I disagree with the earlier (and later) comment on Indigenous Round though with the assertion that it hurts long term. I understand some (many?) people view it as a wedge. I think this is a misunderstanding. Considering the difference between focus and exclusion is why I don’t see a wedge or long term damage coming from the round.

                The round doesn’t ask to exclude white people. It chooses to focus on the Indigenous for many reasons outlined within the discussions here. If we were excluding someone, then I’d agree that I see a wedge. I don’t see a wedge if we are simply going to focus on something.

                As an aside, would the round be more of a wedge if we somehow oppressed the white players?

              • May 8th 2017 @ 10:25am
                paul cotton said | May 8th 2017 @ 10:25am | ! Report

                brilliant comment rick.

              • May 29th 2017 @ 10:48am
                Perry Bridge said | May 29th 2017 @ 10:48am | ! Report

                Sometimes you need to understand where you came from and the battles that have been fought to get to where you are.

                This indigenous round with the focus on 50 years since the 1967 referendum serves a very useful broader social purpose.

                And it mattered not whether a side had no indigenous players on the park on the day or the record.

        • May 5th 2017 @ 1:21pm
          Pope Paul VII said | May 5th 2017 @ 1:21pm | ! Report

          I’m not bothered by people emphasising their aboriginality considering the pounding their ancestors took. Take a bow for just being here.

          Dunno about sociology but nearly 200 years of racism and only 50 years of notional equality is going to knock a people psychologically.

          I love the indigenous round. It’s a veritable Lest we forget.

          • May 5th 2017 @ 1:56pm
            I ate pies said | May 5th 2017 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

            Martin Luther King said:
            “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”

            We started down that path but now we are backtracking very quickly. We are creating a society of division, where everyone is defined by the colour of their skin or their ancestry. For example, kids can’t go into a computer room because they’re not Aboriginal, a woman was booted from a play group for being white. Segregation is slowly but surely slipping back into our society.

            When was the last time you filled out a government form and didn’t have to tick if you’re Aboriginal or not? Everyone is defined by the colour of their skin.

            • May 5th 2017 @ 2:45pm
              Slane said | May 5th 2017 @ 2:45pm | ! Report

              What an absolute load of rot. Skin colour is determined by how close to the equator your ancestors lived. The tragedies that have befallen indigenous cultures all over the planet are are still being perpetuated by you lot who refuse to avknowledge the disadvantages that are inherent in our society.

              • Roar Guru

                May 5th 2017 @ 4:23pm
                Paul D said | May 5th 2017 @ 4:23pm | ! Report

                The bulk of the free speech debate from the conservative side can be distilled down to people wanting the right to still be prejudiced, bigoted and rude.

                What they’re overlooking is that they can still say those things. It’s just that society has determined there should be consequences now for saying them.

            • May 5th 2017 @ 2:58pm
              Pope Paul VII said | May 5th 2017 @ 2:58pm | ! Report

              Marty’s dream is further away than ever in the US I think. I suspect because the prejudices have never been consistently challenged. The anti intellectual, dog eat dog, tax avoiding conservative mantra holds sway. Conveniently Afro American, native Americans and all the other generally underprivileged and under represented minorities are swept aside.

              In little old Oz I think the identification has been a positive. Aboriginals have come a long way in 50 years because they are getting their collective self esteem back. Still a long way to go before identification is not necessary.

              • May 5th 2017 @ 4:16pm
                I hate pies said | May 5th 2017 @ 4:16pm | ! Report

                I think the US is completely irrelevant to our society, and the gains made by the Aborigines are being lost. Defining everything they do by their ancestry just creates division.
                Until we view each other as people first regardless of the colour of our skin, just like Martins dream, we will always have divisions.

              • Roar Guru

                May 5th 2017 @ 5:41pm
                Rick Disnick said | May 5th 2017 @ 5:41pm | ! Report

                I’d agree with that Pope.

    • Roar Guru

      May 5th 2017 @ 12:47pm
      Paul D said | May 5th 2017 @ 12:47pm | ! Report

      Really good piece Gordon. Very fair assessment of how sport is a reflection of society, and how it highlights the issues experienced by wider society on a daily basis.

    • May 5th 2017 @ 12:48pm
      Wabi said | May 5th 2017 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

      The problem with the sport is just a mirror of society argument is that it can deflect responsibility for the problem and with it the need to do anything substantial to address it. The AFL does have a race problem in a way that, at least here in Brisbane, the NRL does not. It would be unfathomable for someone to throw a banana at Jonathan Thurston at Suncorp. I was season member of the Lions from 2007 to 2015, a time during which I attended almost all the home games (yes, I know Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome -but I went anyway). During that time I saw only one woman with a headscarf at the Gabba – and she was part of a group of my international postgraduates I took to the game. It is hard to imagine that an Eddie McGuire would be tolerated in any other code in Australia

      • Roar Guru

        May 5th 2017 @ 12:53pm
        Paul D said | May 5th 2017 @ 12:53pm | ! Report

        Moderation limbo

      • Roar Guru

        May 5th 2017 @ 12:57pm
        Paul D said | May 5th 2017 @ 12:57pm | ! Report


        From Goodna. October last year. Don’t preen and say your code is better than another because every code would say it’s unfathomable until it happens.

        I have lived in Brisbane for close to two decades now. Everyone’s experience is different. I don’t think claiming league isn’t racist and AFL is racist – because no-one’s thrown a banana at Jono & because you only saw one headscarf at the Gabba – is necessarily a sound basis for an argument.

        • May 5th 2017 @ 2:48pm
          clipper said | May 5th 2017 @ 2:48pm | ! Report

          Every sport has troubles with racism – former NRL player Justin Carney has just been banned for 8 games in the ESL for a racist remark, many Football games in Europe have had racist incidents. It’s more noticeable in AFL as they get far larger crowds, but it helps no one to single out a sport – it’s a mirror on society.

          • May 5th 2017 @ 8:30pm
            Agent11 said | May 5th 2017 @ 8:30pm | ! Report

            May also have something to do with the AFL being dominated by white anglo players. Football and NRL are full of dark skinned players.

            • May 5th 2017 @ 9:42pm
              J.T. Delacroix said | May 5th 2017 @ 9:42pm | ! Report

              What a load of rubbish. The NRL is not multicultural at all. It’s about 8% indigenous, 35% Pacific Islander, & 57% bogan. Soccer? Well, who really cares?

              • May 6th 2017 @ 8:26am
                Long Line said | May 6th 2017 @ 8:26am | ! Report

                So, let me get this right.

                You say the NRL is not multicultural, then go on to list at least 3 cultures that play in the comp?

                With that kind of logic, you would make a great Trump supporter.

              • May 17th 2017 @ 11:57am
                Rollo Tomasi Jr said | May 17th 2017 @ 11:57am | ! Report

                “Soccer? Well, who really cares?”

                Only the overwhelming majority of the world’s nation-states. Jog on…

            • May 8th 2017 @ 4:38pm
              clipper said | May 8th 2017 @ 4:38pm | ! Report

              I don’t have the figures, but isn’t the number of indigenous players around the same in the NRL and AFL? Aren’t there also a fair number of Italian and Greek players?
              Also, there is quite a bit of racism around European Football matches, again more noticeable as they get large crowds.

    • Roar Guru

      May 5th 2017 @ 1:06pm
      Rick Disnick said | May 5th 2017 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

      Enjoyed the read Gordon. Thanks.

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