COMMENT - Black lives matter writes Fraser Watson

Black lives matter as worn by Jaydon Sancho

Powerful sporting images depicting unity in the fight against racial injustice do not.

Nor do black squares on Instagram, hashtags that trend on Twitter, or even howls of derision on Facebook. Such shows of solidarity can fleetingly raise hope, maybe even hint at revolution, but the impact is as futile as it is brief.

Sport, like society, can appear a formidable tool when it takes a stand. With sport, like in society, such stands can’t mask the insincerity, hypocrisy, and congealed chaos of the world that lies beneath.
A world where the craving to fight racial hatred, plays second fiddle to the tribalism that inadvertently governs it.

Sport speaks out - but tribalism reigns


The despicable scenes surrounding George Floyd’s death in Minnesota last week has sent PR initiatives into overdrive. On what was dubbed ‘Blackout Tuesday’, Liverpool, Chelsea, Leicester and Newcastle all projected images of their players down on one knee. Numerous clubs and individuals joined the social media movement and supporters followed suit. The message was widespread, the outrage made abundantly clear.

But speaking out against racism has always been the easy part. Having the fortitude to truly deal with what fuels it is a notion that sport has consistently failed to grasp.

Because it is here that tribalism reigns. Take the Premier League with Peter Schmeichel and Ian Wright, Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra, John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, or Spurs and Antonio Rudiger – just a smattering of the race related incidents whereby the clubs of the instigators pulled rank behind their own.
For Suarez and Terry, there were consequences. And yet, amidst their unrepentance and questionable explanations, came howls of injustice and unequivocal support from teammates and fans. 

In the build up to his £85 million dollar pay day, Connor McGregor publicly sent a racist jibe the way of Floyd Mayweather. Predictably, the slur went ignored by authorities. Holding the Irishman bang to rights would have damaged their respective brands far more than a farcical few rounds in Vegas ever could.

Kevin Prince-Boateng walked off a football field to protest against racist abuse – and was promptly criticised by Sepp Blatter. Future NBA star Patrick Ewing grew up amidst banana skins being hurled his way on court. And with what is now shuddering irony, the NFL ostracized Colin Kaepernick for taking the knee during the American national anthem as a protest against police brutality.

All the above, are just microscopic elements of the collective issue that has plagued sport since time began.

Breaking through barriers

And for as long as we all exonerate our own, and racial protests are viewed as an irritation, and punishments are diluted to protect the stars that sell their brands – the instinctive stereotyping and flagrant ignorance towards the issue that so many of us have been guilty of will remain prevalent.
And that’s irrespective of our Instagram accounts.

For sport to break through the barriers won’t be simplistic. It will mean brutal honesty from those in contradictory positions. It will mean bravery from authorities. It will mean a willingness to stand up from the media. It will mean repentance.

Is my own conscience clear? No.

I grew up in changing rooms amidst quips like ‘mark the black lad, he looks rapid’. It didn’t even cross my mind to curtail such stereotyping.

As a journalist, in December 2014 I publicly defended Liam Williams after he ‘blacked up’ to depict Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony at a party. I didn’t see the harm - it was after all a mere tribute not an insult.

It was a stance born out of ignorance to the historical context – and my regret now doesn’t validate that.

Time to change is now

And the horrific scenes in America now must be the catalyst for sport to assess its own failings with racism. How many football fans have joined the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and yet days ago were scathing about Troy Deeney’s reluctance to return to football?

To some of course, Deeney’s fears weren’t born out of the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on the BAME community, or even his young son’s diagnosed breathing problems. It was just Watford bias. A far-fetched attempt to null and void the season and ensure his club survived. A hindrance to those who have trophies to win and want football back on the television.

Again, empathy for an ethnic minority footballer came a distant second to tribalism.

Sport is not directly responsible for George Floyd’s death, far from it. But the manner in which it has failed to tackle racial hatred continues to contribute to the under layer that plagues society. A plague whereby racism is called out, criticised, and combatted by stands of global unity, and yet seldom dealt with the severity that’s required.

So sport should spare us the noble gestures, the iconic images, and unified condemnation.
Black lives matter.

But unless you're truly addressing the issues that contradict that, speaking out does not.