It is ironic that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) finds itself bowled over by a controversy over racism just days before UEFA European Football Championship kicks off. Unlike the covert racism in cricket – including enthusiastic participation from Indian cricketers and fans – overt racism is a virus with which European football has lived for decades. The difference, of course, is that with a third to two-thirds of European national teams fielding players of African or Asian descent – many of them stars of the European club leagues – both the UEFA and its global parent FIFA have made manful efforts to tackle this problem, if with limited success.
Still, there is much for the alleged gentleman’s game to learn from the working class sport of football. The English cricket board’s clear overreaction in suspending bowler Ollie Robinson for nine-year-old tweets probably reflects a guilty conscience for the apathy with which it – along with most other national cricket boards — has approached the issue all these decades. The Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 against apartheid is a distant memory. If the message is to signal intolerance to racism, it has probably failed, helped not least by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s criticism that ECB had gone “over the top”.
The UK PM, who is yet to learn the art of strategic silence, did not choose to comment after fans booed the English football team for choosing to take the knee before a recent friendly against Austria. His spokesperson, though, added “he (Johnson) respects the rights of those who want to peacefully protest this way”. It is unclear whether the “peaceful protest” referred to the kneeling or the booing.
Kneeling for a few seconds before each match – a nod to American Footballer Colin Kaepernick’s famous 2016 gesture of protest against racism in the US – is a practice clubs under the English football association had elected to do before each match in the 2021-21 season. The gesture was initially to express solidarity with America’s Black Lives Matter movement but also to underline its message “No room for racism” in the sport in England. Commentators assiduously backed up the campaign as did TV tickers.
In truth, though, the progressive reinforcement of anti-racist campaigns by footballing officialdom is in direct proportion to the rising racism in Europe for reasons outside the control of any sporting body, however woke.
The pre-match kneeling added some heft to the established practice of clubs banning fans founds guilty of racially abusing players on the field (multiple stadium cameras made identification possible). But this voluntary gesture, in which referees and coaching staffs also occasionally participate, seemed unexceptionable when the stadiums were empty. As fans returned, so did the jeers and boos for the duration of the kneeling, a depressing reminder of the endemic nature of racist attitudes.
That much is clear from the racist abuse that is heaped, mostly anonymously, on African- and Asian-origin players via social media. This, too, the English football association sought to tackle by imposing a four-day ban in April on social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for failing to do enough to combat such abuse on their sites
FIFA and UEFA joined this boycott as did English cricket and rugby clubs and the Lawn Tennis Association. They have urged the British government to make these platforms more accountable for the content they amplify. Though FIFA runs an anti-racist campaign during major events, the English FA is an outlier for the energy with which it chooses to tackle racism in the sport, despite the manifest cussedness of the fans. Most other European jurisdictions address the issue retroactively – such as when footballers walk off the pitch in protest – by fining clubs or banning their fans from the stadiums and so on.
Only the politically astute Emmanuelle Macron explicitly indicated his solidarity with this message. In 2018, he invited teenage footballers from the <i> banlieue <p> clubs and schools to watch France play Uruguay in the World Cup quarter finals at the Elysée Palace gardens where he sat on the grass with them in his shirtsleeves. Like most of these lads, the African-descent players in the national football team that won the 2018 and the 1998 edition came from these outer city housing developments. Just as Nelson Mandela who enthusiastically backed post-apartheid South Africa’s all- white rugby team to heal racial divisions, Macron, too, understood the unifying power of sports. But they are rare examples in this post-truth world.
As for Robinson, a commentator suggested a stint of community service coaching multicultural inner city youth cricket teams may have been more instructive than a ban for teenage transgressions. Meanwhile, Wilfried Zaha of the Ivory Coast and a striker for Crystal Palace said he would stop the practice of pre-match kneeling because he thought the gesture had lost its meaning. “I just think we should stand tall,” he said. Clearly, there are no quick fixes to racism. But that does not mean sporting administrations and politicians should treat the issue with indifference either.