Sport makes right gestures, but will change really come?
It was a monologue of raging, searing pain, bringing sport and all its disciples face to face with a truth it would rather not confront. “Until we educate the entire human race,” said Michael Holding, his stentorian voice starting to quaver, “this thing will not stop.” Viewers tuning in for the sodden start of a cricket summer like no other might have expected Whispering Death to offer his usual soothing reminiscence, or to explore how Southampton’s leaden skies would help the ball to swing. Instead, he did more in four minutes to expose the roots of ignorance and racial injustice than his sport had managed in four decades.
You might argue that pundits should stick solely to their realm of expertise. You might believe that midmorning rain-delay filler should offer only mindless escape from a damaged world. If so, Holding was here to tell you that you were wrong. At 66, he has seen enough, and heard enough during a Jamaican upbringing in which “I was never taught anything good about black people” to understand the significance of seizing momentum for change. Behind the raw reflections that he offered alongside Ebony Rainford-Brent lay one simple question. If not now, when?
The expression of solidarity on the field has been stirring, with all England and West Indies players taking the knee. But Holding has the perspective to realise that it is still not enough. He realises that sport in 2020 risks falling headlong into the trap of treating anti-racism as a purely performative exercise.
The endless dissection of what Premier League players are signalling by kneeling en masse is a case in point. Does it convey empowerment or subjugation? Does it reflect genuine unity, or forced allegiance to a particular point of view? Around and around in circles we go, while any practical policies for improving sport’s record on racial equality remain ignored.
The Premier League’s move to replace players’ names with Black Lives Matter was already problematic, given the ease with which that slogan can be conflated with the anarchic extremes of the movement of the same name, but another flaw is that it was time-limited. After 12 games, it was quietly withdrawn, so what now? Is the assumption that in a matter of weeks a frenzied society will have discovered something else to worry about? There is a real danger here that by reducing the discussion to semantics and cosmetics, to short-term sloganising and obsessing over whether Gary Neville has his BLM badge on, we lose sight of what this was all about in the first place.
Take the scene that unfolded just before last Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix. Fourteen Formula One drivers take the knee, while six stay standing. All of them wear “End Racism” T-shirts, while Lewis Hamilton, the figure around whom a tense debate has swirled,
Let us find out whether Holding’s intervention was a watershed or just a cry in the wilderness
reverses his to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter”. The abiding impression should be of a sport united against intolerance, and yet the more arresting statement, perhaps, is delivered by half a dozen young men at the back.
Is the decision by Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen and four of their peers to resist kneeling a rousing sign of individual freedom of conscience? Or will they look back at this picture, three years from now, as the moment they failed to show solidarity with a cause greater than themselves?
Three years can be a long time in a struggle as vexed as this. In 2017, Hamilton’s own enthusiasm for taking a knee was lukewarm at best. Once, Hamilton was encouraged to view a simple, potent gesture as more trouble than it was worth. Today, he perceives taking the knee as central to the fight on which he has embarked, promising to replicate it at future grands prix. It is a salutary reminder that gestures are fluid, that their symbolism evolves, but that the wider battle goes on.
Sports purport to understand that there is a longer game to play. If so, let us see, six months or a year from now, how much has appreciably changed. Let us find out whether Holding’s passionate intervention marked a watershed or just a cry in the wilderness.
All sports need to set measurable standards against which to judge themselves. The England and Wales Cricket Board says it is ready to publish a strategy on inclusion and diversity. It is one that should be built not on bromides, but on a realistic manifesto for change.
Hamilton, too, needs to articulate in specific terms how he hopes to implement the change he seeks. “Real, tangible change,” he assures. But what are the metrics? How many people will his commission, to encourage more young people from minority backgrounds to consider careers in motorsport, ideally have helped in three, five or 10 years’ time? How will the institutional barriers be torn down? How much money is he devoting to it?
The difficulty is that sport prefers to bask in the reflected glamour of a slogan. That is the easy part. The far harder challenge, as any civil servant will tell you, lies in the painstaking, line-by-line graft necessary to force through substantial and lasting change.
This is the leap that sport, still agonising over gestures, has yet to show that it is ready to take. And yet this is the only way that history, to quote from Holding’s soliloquy for the ages, will be written by the conquered, not the conquerors.
Sending a message: West Indies players take a knee before the start of the first Test