Sport faces its racial reckoning
This year saw athletes spark changes within their leagues and in society at large
Before a mid-december match in the UEFA Champions League kicked off in the French capital, the players of Paris Saint- Germain and their Turkish opponent, Istanbul Basaksehir, did what usually happens before a soccer match: they took a knee.
But this knee was different.
The players took positions around the centre circle, and the match officials knelt next to them. A television camera in the middle spun around to pan the scene in a cinematic flourish.
It was what took place a day earlier that gave the moment some added heft. Both teams walked off the field not long after a match official referred to an Istanbul coach as “the black one.” In his native Romanian, the word sounded much like “negro,” which is what some of the players heard. His removal was demanded, and lacking an extra official, the match was postponed.
The incident was ultimately inconsequential. The match was resumed, and PSG cruised to an expected easy win. UEFA is investigating the official's actions. But it was also something of a watershed moment. European soccer is notorious for instances of racial abuse against Black players, usually from fans of the opposing team. Warnings are issued, and punishments are sometimes levied after the fact, but here were players flat-out refusing to carry on after what they felt was a racist incident. Players from both teams, even.
It's just one of the ripple effects in sports caused by something thousands of kilometres from Paris. When George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, while the sports world was almost entirely on hold, it touched off a degree of racial reckoning that was reminiscent of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. Large protests and demands for change were everywhere, and professional athletes, a significant percentage of whom are Black, used new-found leverage to make social-justice awareness a visible part of the return-to-play plans.
The pandemic pause itself was undoubtedly the sports story of 2020, but the increased focus on issues of race — police brutality, structural inequality, voting and education reform — in the sports world might have an even more long-lasting effect.
When play resumed in the summer with highly visible nods to social-justice issues — banners, slogans on jerseys and T-shirts, advertising campaigns on broadcasts — there were inevitable complaints. Some didn't like that sports were veering into politics — although it was a specific type of politics that seemed to bother the complainers — and other critics asked what all the attention on race was supposed to accomplish.
That answer is already evident: a lot.
Washington's NFL team dropped “Redskins” as its team name before the season when sponsors and advertisers finally forced the hand of owner Daniel Snyder. The Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos soon followed suit, becoming the Edmonton Football Team until further notice. And in December, confirming something that was signalled in the shortened baseball season of 2020, the Cleveland Indians said they would retire that name and Chief Wahoo, the franchise's racist caricature of a mascot.
Those team names, all of which have been controversial for decades, are being changed as a direct result of something that happened following the death of an unarmed Black man in Minnesota months earlier.
There have been other changes, even if they have less of an impact on merchandising.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in August apologized to estranged quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was the public face of the players who knelt during the national anthem beginning in 2016 and who has been out of the league since. It may have been just hollow words, but it was a far sight more than Goodell had admitted in the years since Kaepernick was obviously blackballed for being a figure of controversy.
When the NBA'S restart was
almost derailed by another death of a Black man, Jacob Blake, at the hands of police, one of the conditions of continued play was a commitment from league owners that the NBA would help facilitate voting in its cities.
The United States went on to have a record turnout at the November polls, and ballots cast in four basketball towns — Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee — contributed to the late drama that saw Joe Biden turn the results in his favour.
Even the overwhelmingly white NHL contributed to the discussion, though it remains to be seen how much that will be the case in the future after the newly formed Hockey Diversity Alliance, fronted by former and current Black players, decided to operate outside the NHL umbrella.
The sea change in all these cases is one of attitude: years of talk about combating racism has
given way to concrete results. Athletes insist that they will continue to push for real change.
When those players walked off the pitch in Paris, they demonstrated the leverage that they have.
The next time a Black player hears monkey noises from the stand, there's a blueprint for the correct response.
But, that change will still take time. Fans of Millwall, a soccer club in England's second tier, booed players who took the knee before a home match in December. Not long after that, fans of lower-tier Cambridge United did the same thing. Officials and players at both clubs expressed disgust at such behaviour from their supporters.
The irony of booing players who signal a desire to combat racism, of course, is that it only ensures they will be taking knees for a longer time.