Racism: The Second Disease Plaguing the Sports World

Sports have historically been known as a unifying force, casting aside political tension and bringing cities and fan bases together.

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The coronavirus pandemic finally moved to the backdrop of the news, but an issue just as severe has taken its place: racism in today’s America. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers has sparked peaceful protests, violent riots and looting, and a revitalized national conversation on race. While people around the nation are rethinking their subconscious biases and the issue of racism in 2020, it is also important to examine the role that race plays in sports.

Sports have historically been known as a unifying force, casting aside political tension and bringing cities and fan bases together. However, while sports certainly connect different types of people, there is still rampant racism in leagues—professional and amateur—around the world.

In European soccer, for instance, there have been many jarring incidents regarding race in recent years. From racially abusive chants by Tottenham fans to Nazi salutes in Bulgaria, racism has reached sky-high levels. Officials in all leagues have fought to eliminate racism with the creation of anti-racism committees, but often in misguided ways. In Italy, several scandals occurred where crowds led ape chants and threw bananas at black players, which received global criticism. Officials unveiled a “Say No to Racism” campaign late in 2019 after promising that they would seriously combat the racism afflicting their league. They introduced this initiative with a poster of three monkeys with painted faces. There was immediate backlash all over social media over the questionable choice to include monkeys on a poster that was supposed to prevent racism, not promote it. The league finally apologized in a statement, but ultimately, the committee’s actions did more harm than good. Nonetheless, it is promising that a league that has long been silent about its endemic racism is finally taking steps to change.

Perhaps the most glaring example of racism in American sports is the NFL. The most high-profile controversy in the NFL involves former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick knelt for the national anthem in defiance of police brutality in 2016, sparking a heated debate about respecting the flag. President-elect Trump at the time infamously tweeted “YOU’RE FIRED” to Kaepernick and other players kneeling for the anthem. Since the 2016 season, Kaepernick has remained out of a job in the NFL despite having helped his team to the Super Bowl. The fact that Kaepernick can’t even find a backup job in a league where Nathan Peterman still has a spot is astounding. Colin Kaepernick has become a household name in the past five years, but his situation isn’t the only injustice plaguing the NFL. More recently, NFL owners discussed a proposal that would give teams that hired minority coaches additional draft picks, but there are significant problems with the plan in its own right. In a league with predominantly African American players, just three of the 32 teams have minority head coaches. By incentivizing the hiring of minority coaches, the NFL sends the message to minority coaching candidates that they have a better chance of being hired because they are minorities, not because they are the best person for the job. Needless to say, this proposal received significant backlash around the league and was tabled. If the NFL seeks to improve its image in terms of race equality, the way to do that is by fairly interviewing a wide range of people and selecting the most qualified candidate, not forcing teams’ hands.

Sometimes racism is blatant, but more often than not, there is a more subtle undertone affecting the way sports are played. A 2007 study showed that when NBA referees encountered a black player and a white player performing the same action, they were five percent more likely to call a foul on the black player. Whether or not the NBA referees intentionally factored the players’ race into the call, the statistics show that they had some kind of subconscious bias that led them to make the call one way or the other.

Though this stat may seem relatively insignificant, it reflects the nation’s institutionalized racism as a whole. In my opinion, referees, not just in the NBA, need to go through intensive racial bias training courses. These referees aren’t necessarily racists—it’s just that societal stereotypes have influenced them without them realizing. A serious course (unlike Dunder Mifflin’s Diversity Day) would go far in eliminating racial bias. Increasing the diversity of referees will also add fair checks and balances to the foul-calling process. Having video assistant referees—like VAR in some soccer leagues—challenge calls will give more opinions to overturn biased calls.

Racism is not restricted to professional sports. I am on a club soccer team, DUSC, that has had a string of racist incidents on the field. Last season, we had an incident with a team that called one of our African American players a racial slur, leading to physical confrontation. This year, an incident with the same team occurred in which one of their players verbally abused another one of our players. But this time, we learned to ignore them and let our play do the talking. We won the game, a stronger statement than any amount of shoving or punching could have done. More importantly, though, as our coach pointed out, we all stayed true to the color of our jersey, not the color of our skin.

As we take a moment to reflect on the role of race in institutions around the world, we must remember what is at stake. To prevent the next George Floyd from being murdered because of his or her skin color, we must all take steps to eliminate our implicit bias and fight to root it out in every area of society.