Sport makes right ges­tures, but will change re­ally come?

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | First Test - Oliver Brown Chief Sports Fea­ture Writer

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

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