Racism Ruins Sports Yet Again

After an act of alleged racism involving fourth official Sebastian Coltescu in a Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and İstanbul Başakşehir, players walked off the field in protest.

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Tensions were high when İstanbul Başakşehir visited Paris Saint Germain (PSG) for the final qualifying game in the group round of the UEFA Championships League on Tuesday, December 8. The stakes were high as PSG, last season’s finalists, knew that they could be eliminated from the competition with one more loss. Meanwhile, Başakşehir knew that they were already bound to be eliminated as they were too far behind the other teams in Group H—PSG, RB Leipzig, and Manchester United—to progress to the knockout stage. However, the Turkish champions, riding off an unlikely win against English heavyweights Manchester United, were still eager for another taste of victory before ending their Champions League campaign. On a night that should have showcased the desire and talent of two great teams, an act of alleged racism resulted in a premature ending to the match.

In the 13th minute of play, PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe fouled Başakşehir right-winger Fredrick Gulbrandsen, which was met with backlash from İstanbul’s sideline staff. The fourth official, Sebastian Coltescu, subsequently told the main referee, Ovidiu Hategan, to “go and give it [a red card] to the Black one [Pierre Webo, the assistant coach of Başakşehir]. This is not [tolerable]. Go and identify him. Go verify—the Black one over there.” Ovidiu proceeded to show Webo a red card, but Webo, clearly bothered by Coltescu’s words, was in a state of frustration. After hearing the fourth official mutter the word, “negru”—“black” in Romanian—Webo leaped off his seat, pulled down his face mask, and ran over to Coltescu. Standing in front of the Romanian official’s face, Webo repeatedly exclaimed, “Why [did] you say ‘negro?’” while being ushered off the pitch for receiving a red card. Despite the growing crowd of players from both teams who gathered around the sidelines, Coltescu had no response.

The players and managers had different reactions to this incident, but at the forefront of the confrontation was striker Demba Ba, a substitute for Başakşehir that night. Ba exclaimed, “When you [are] mentioning a white guy, you never say ‘this white guy’—you say ‘this guy.’ So why, when you mention a Black guy, do you have to say ‘this Black guy’?” Later, Okan Buruk, the head coach of Başakşehir, told Coltescu, “You are a racist. You are a racist. We don’t want you.”

A visibly nervous and shocked Coltescu tried responding to the numerous players and coaches who were berating him. He argued that he had used “negru” only to refer to the color black, but his meager attempt to defend his inappropriate actions failed to convince anybody. Instead, it demonstrated that Coltescu remained ignorant over the significance of his wrongdoings. Coltescu has since told Prosport, a Romanian newspaper, “Anyone who knows me knows I’m not racist. At least, I hope that’s the case.” Though his intent may not have been to refer to Webo with a negative connotation by calling him black, this racial profiling is not acceptable. Coltescu could have easily walked over to Webo and identified him by asking for his name or physically pointing him out. Instead, he exhibited a dangerous lack of awareness of acceptable behaviors. If he is found guilty of racism by UEFA, he will face a 10-match ban.

In what would have been the 23rd minute of the match, the İstanbul players and staff left the field of play in protest of Coltescu's mishandling of the situation. Then, the PSG players and staff also left the field, followed by the referees, leaving the reporters and journalists in the stadium in shock as they tried to recount the controversial events to viewers at home. The walk-off was especially significant as it signified that all the players, coaches, and referees at the match stood in solidarity with Webo and felt passionately about the situation. The incident attracted even more attention from fans around the world, shedding light on Coltescu’s wrongdoings and sending the powerful message that racial profiling in sports cannot and will not be tolerated.

The game resumed from the 14th minute the next day, with Coltescu forbidden from being present in the stadium and Webo’s red card rescinded. The players took a knee on the field and wore shirts that displayed the message “No to Racism” prior to the match. The match ended up being a blowout, as PSG ran out 5-1 winners. Under ordinary circumstances, that match would have been remembered as a great day of celebration for PSG. Instead, PSG’s victory was overshadowed by the events of the previous day.

UEFA has been running a “Say no to racism” campaign since 2016, but the fact that one of the organization’s very own officials displayed racist tendencies proves that UEFA’s effort to combat internalized racism through the mere use of slogans has been largely ineffective. Shockingly, this occasion was not the only act of racism in the past 10 days of European soccer. After a strong performance in a match at the end of November, Manchester United forward Edison Cavani responded to a post his friend, who was Black, had made about him on Instagram. While this seemed like a fine gesture, Cavani captioned his response, “Gracias negrito.” The post was quickly deleted, and a statement was later released by Manchester United, stating that Cavani had no “malicious intent” and that “he deleted it as soon as he was informed that it could be misconstrued.” While Cavani likely did not have racist intentions, this incident again highlights the issue in which members of the professional soccer community have not been properly educated about the use of racist terms. This endless stream of racist behavior is unacceptable, and it is clear that something must change.

For starters, UEFA and other sport organizations need to invest in providing proper education to their own employees about the use of racist and dehumanizing terms. Within the curriculum, employees should be taught to never identify people based on race, regardless of the situation. Additionally, as was shown during the PSG game, employees cannot use the language barrier as an excuse to be racist, and stricter fines and bans should be put in place to firmly cement the gravity of such actions. Sport organizations should even consider implementing an idea Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling proposed in 2019, in which soccer leagues “call for an automatic nine-point deduction for racist abuse” and clubs “have to play three games behind closed doors.” Under Sterling’s approach, teams “lose revenue as a direct consequence of racist behavior.” Of course, taking away points would not apply to referees like Coltescu, but alternate methods of dealing fines and bans could be established as a substitute.

The decision by both teams to pause the game sent the powerful message that racism will not be tolerated in sports. Nonetheless, there still exists an alarming lack of awareness and education regarding the severity of racist behavior. All members of the sports community, officials, coaches, players, and even us fans, must actively work to promote an inclusive environment that does not stigmatize anyone based on race. But for those of us at home, the question is: when will it happen, and what can we do to help?