Reactions to Racism: The Quenelle, Clippers, and Bananas

This past week in professional sports we’ve seen accusations of racism, fines for potentially racist gestures, and questions about how the associated governing bodies should handle such actions. In addition to the variety of  racist incidents, we’ve also seen quite a variety of reactions, from humour to silent protest. What is the best way to combat racism and discrimination in sport?

One gesture has caused an uproar, specifically in France and among French players in various countries. The quenelle is said to have been created by French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, but has contested meanings. The gesture involves one straightened arm angled down with the other arm crossing over the opposite shoulder. Some say that it is nothing more than an inverted Nazi salute and represents anti-Semitic sentiments. Its resemblance to the Nazi salute and the fact that M’bala M’bala has seven convictions of anti-Semitic hate speech strengthens the gestures racist connotations. The French comedian is a self-proclaimed anti-Zionist, not an anti-Semite, and claims that the gesture is an anti-establishment symbol. However, M’bala M’bala’s fans have been photographed making the gesture in front of sensitive sites, such as Parisian synagogues and in front of Holocaust sites.

French academic, Jean-Yves Camus has said that the symbol has become a sort of badge for the youth who do not understand its anti-Semitic origins and instead use the symbol to represent resistance and defiance against the system. In addition to the various interpretations of the gesture, West Ham soccer player Nicolas Anelka made the gesture during a post-goal celebration. Later he claimed that he slid the quenelle in support of his friend, M’bala M’bala, and agreed that it was an anti-establishment symbol of defiance.

Deciding that the gesture was too closely associated to anti-Semitism, the Football Association banned Anelka for five games, which is the most-lenient punishment that could have been given under the new anti-discrimination rules. West Brom also suspended him until the appeals and trials had been resolved, and he was fined $130,000. Instead of accepting certain terms to return to the field, Anelka chose to end his career with West Brom, wishing to “maintain his dignity.”

While the FA took action against its players’ racist actions, some anti-racist groups have criticized the governing body for imposing only the most lenient sanctions. The FA, FIFA, and other governing bodies have been struggling to handle other, more complicated situations. The most poignant of which occurred just this week in the United States when an audio recording of the owner of the L.A. Clippers was released, revealing his strongly racist attitudes. In a discussion with his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, Donald Sterling expressed his embarrassment and anger that she was associating with African-Americans. Stiviano reminded Sterling on multiple occasions that she is of Mexican and African-American descent, and that the majority of his team’s players are African-American. In response, Sterling described what some have said to be “plantation politics”; he feeds and pays the African-American basketball players, and he benefits financially.
The controversial has spread like wildfire in a matter of days. Even President Obama has weighed in on the issue: “I don’t think I have to interpret those statements for you. They kind of speak for themselves … When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t have to do anything, you just let them talk.” A number of prominent current or former NBA have made clear that Sterling needs to go. Michael Jordan, now the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats said “As an owner, I’m obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. … As a former player, I’m completely outraged. There is no room in the NBA — or anywhere else — for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed.” In the past game, the L.A. Clippers wore their warm ups inside out to obscure the team’s logo in silent protest to their owner’s actions. In addition, a number of sponsors have pulled their support from the team. The question that remains is what the NBA will do next. Most fans and players want to see if relinquish his ownership. If he NBA do force Sterling to give up the Clippers, he would be the first owner to have this done.

The Clippers have seen overwhelming support against Sterling and the presence of racist in the NBA. With the swift action taken against the Clippers’ owner, I can’t help but wonder why the European soccer leagues have had such a difficult time with racist and discriminatory actions. As we saw in the film clip from the other week, there have been countless instances of fans harassing African or Afro-European players, coaches using derogatory and racist language, and even cases like Nicolas Anelka flashing racist gestures on the field. Markovitz usings Kwame Anthony Appiah’s term “counter-cosmopolitanism” to explain the racism and xenophobia that is rampant in global sports. “Newcomers, challengers, immigrants, and “alien” languages are often met with ridicule, as well as harsh, hostile, even violent reactions by the natives” (Markovitz 207).

The global reach of soccer and the rising flow of international soccer players into Europe has led to a situation in which many migrant players experience racism, especially from the fans. Many of the players have identified their public presence and the proliferation of social media as part of the cause of the racial discrimination and hate speech directed at them, suggesting that being in the public eye and publically criticized comes with the territory of being a professional soccer player. This explanation, though, is no excuse. Clubs have struggled to control their fans, and some have been fined for their fans touting racist banners at matches and many black players, especially in Spain and Italy, have had bananas thrown at them.

This week one fan received a life ban, a fine, and a brilliant comeback from his target. As Brazilian Dani Alves went to take a corner kick for Barcelona, a banana landed at his feet. Without missing a beat, he picked it up, peeled it, took a bite, then continued playing the game. He has been applauded for his humor and quick-thinking. Later, on Instagram Alves joked that his father had always told him to eat bananas to prevent cramping. Villarreal, whose fan was the banana-throwing culprit, banned the fan for life and seemed to support Alves’ reaction: “You have to take it with a dose of humor….We aren’t going to change things easily. If you don’t give it importance, they don’t achieve their objective.”

Could it be that the NBA is not experiencing counter-cosmopolitanism? I think one big difference between the NBA and the European soccer leagues is the presence of foreign players. Whereas Europe may be experience counter-cosmopolitan responses to large populations of foreign players, the NBA has had strong associations to African-Americans for quite some time. This is not to say that there hasn’t been issues of racism and civil rights in the NBA, but, as Obama said, “Obviously, the NBA is a league that is beloved by fans all across the country. It’s got a lot of African-American players, steeped in African-American culture, and I suspect the NBA is concerned and going to be resolving this.”



A Second League of Denial?

Head-on collisions are one of the defining features of American football, and we’ve seen how this “big hit” culture has persisted despite information and research that has shown the dangers of frequent head trauma in sports players. The International Rugby Board and the Rugby Football Union have received a lot of criticism recently over their response, or more accurately, their lack of response to the recent research linking long-term brain trauma to injuries commonly sustained while playing sports. One former rugby player, Barry O’Driscoll, has been very influential in bringing concussion awareness to the IRB and RFU’s agenda. O’Driscoll played full-back for Ireland in the early 1970s. More recently, he has become a well-respected doctor and sat on the IRB’s medical committee for 15 years. His son has also been the team doctor for  both Ireland and the Lions, and his nephew plays center for Ireland.

In 2012, though, Barry O’Driscoll resigned in protest to IRB’s most recent ruling: the Pitch-Side Assessment Test. This “five-minute test” is the current rule for examining players who are suspected to have been concussed during play. Previously, players with a concussion were required to sit out for 3 weeks, which was then reduced to one week. Now, under the PSAT doctors can clear players to return to the game just five minutes after a debilitating head-on collision. O’Driscoll was outraged that IRB and RFU were allowing this to occur, stating that the governing bodies of rugby were doing a disservice to the seriousness of concussions. He believes that if a player is injured enough to require a pitchside assessment by the team doctor, then he should be pulled from the game.

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In an illogical relationship, the regulations for concussion treatment has become more lenient as the size and the power of the rugby players’ bodies and style of play has increased. Even in the last 20 years, the average size of rugby players has increased 10% and they have learned to use their bigger size with big hits and forceful plays. As one journalists from the Guardian puts it, “rugby is no longer a contact sport, it is a collision sport.”

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How players have increased in size. Click here for the interactive version.

O’Driscoll is frustrated that the UK hasn’t accepted the evidence of brain trauma from sports injuries after everything that has happened in the U.S. with CTE and the NFL, who has even offered to share their research with the rugby officials. The biggest problem, though, is that the IRB and RFU remain adamant that one cannot compare American football and rugby, since the head-on collisions in rugby are not intentional or  “emboldened by the illusion of invulnerability that a helmet brings” (BBC). The chief medical officer for RFU, Simon Kemp, said that the number of confirmed CTE cases are very low with only one death. Insisting that football and rugby are very different, Kemp and other members of rugby’s governing body have chosen to conduct and rely on independent research on brain trauma, rather than use the two decades of research that has been compiled in the U.S.(NY Times).

O’Driscoll has another fear that isn’t limited just to modern professional sports injuries. Although the health and safety of professional players are a huge concern, these players have access to medical attention and services that many amateur players do not. Yet, the amateur players are re-creating the big hits and the rough play that they see on TV. This effect became very apparent with the death of a 14-year-old Irish rugby player. Ben Robinson played in a school rugby match in 2011, during which he received three very hard hits to his head. After an assessment from his coach each time, he went back out onto the field. Later on he told his mother that he wasn’t feeling well, then collapsed on the field. He died two days after the game.

Young sports players, especially American football, soccer, and rugby players are learning to sacrifice their body from a very young age. One of O’Driscoll’s biggest concerns with the state of concussion treatment in the professional leagues is the message that it is sending to the audience. Coaches and side-line medics are reinforcing the idea that injuries are just a part of the game and that one must sacrifice his or her mind and body for the sake of the team.

This is exactly what Messner describes in his section on violence done to oneself by sports players. Players are usually eager to get back onto the field and know that they are sacrificing their current and future health for the game. Like the NFL did, the IRB has stated many times that the players are their first concern and that the players know the risks of playing rugby. Does this really matter though? We have seen that players are willing to sacrifice everything to play, perpetuation the normalization of pain and displays of masculinity (Messner 59).

Players know that they are jeopardizing their future health, but “this self-knowledge was in some ways shallow; it was not an expansive sense of his body as a living organism, as a self that connects in health ways with others and with one’s environment. Rather, it was a self-knowledge firmly bounded within an instrumental view of one’s body as a machine, or a took, to be built, disciplined, used (and, if necessary, used up) to get a job done (Messner 58). So, is it the governing body’s responsibility to protect players from themselves?

“It’s like asking a drunk driver if he’s fit to drive”

After Ben Robison died, his father criticized the system, drawing attention to the lack of concussion education, precautions, and treatment in school rugby. Ben was “assessed” all three times he received a blow to the head, but as Mr. Robison says, “asking a kid, ‘Are you O.K.?’. is ridiculous, because of course the boy wants to return to the field. It’s like asking a drunk driver if he’s fit to drive” (NY Times).

O’Driscoll has suggested a number of amendments to the rules of the game. Despite having resigned from IRB medical committee, and being told to “forget the lessons to be taken from the NFL lawsuit” (NY Times), he still remains very involved in advocating for progress regarding head trauma in sports. He believes it’s best to play it safe: if any player is suspected to have a concussion, he or she sits out for a week. No questions. Is it possible that fear of sitting out could clean up the game? Or will players continue their rough play and suffer the consequences on the bench? An even bigger question: when will governing bodies of sport in the UK acknowledge that rugby and soccer can be just as dangerous as American football?



Unionizing Collegiate Sports

The costs of attending college have increased up to 77%  in some states, and this figure is just from within the last five years. More than ever, students are struggling to finance their secondary education. For some this can take the form participation in a collegiate sport in exchange for a scholarship to attend the institution. Over the past month the football players at Northwestern University have been advocating for the creation of a union for the collegiate athletes.  This union would allow for the players to bargain for certain benefits and services, such as a stipend, medical coverage for former players suffering from sports-related injuries, concussion specialists who are present at the football games, and in general, to let the voices of the student-athletes to be heard.

One of the main arguments for unionizing collegiate athletes is their claim that participation on the football team is equivalent to a full-time job, and they should be compensated accordingly. Some players report that football-related activities make up 40-60 hours of their week, and that they have even been steered away from more rigorous fields of study in order to be fully committed to football’s schedule, is in Kain Colter’s case. Others argue that they help generate millions of dollars for the universities and should receive a cut of the profits. (A similar issue led to a lawsuit a few years ago when the NCAA banned former players from receiving pay for the use of their character or “likeness” in video games).

Many people have voiced their disagreements with giving student-athletes a salary to compensate them for their contributions to the institution. Some emphasize that paying athletes would undermine the education that Northwestern, and all other colleges, are committed to. Student-athletes are students, not employees. Leaders at Northwestern have been very supportive of their players’ efforts, but do not necessarily agree with the goal of unionizing. Northwestern has made clear that their student-athletes are not employees. Additionally, salary compensation for the players would conflict with the stipulations of Title IX, to which the university must adhere. If a college or university were to pay the football players they would then be required to compensate the female athletes of the college equally. This poses a problem because, typically, collegiate football and men’s basketball makes a lot of money for the institution, but the rest of the sports, including all of women’s sports, tend to lose money.

One sports-law professor has raised an interesting counter-point to a student-athlete union demanding a salary, saying that doing so would challenge the amateur status of collegiate sports. Whereas this professor’s concern for the shift away from amateurism is probably related more closely to the players themselves and collegiate athletics’ relation to professional sports, the loss of amateurism is also detrimental to the education institutions. In “Sport and Social Class”, Bourdieu says that a feature of elite sports and of amateur sports is the element of disinterestedness and fair play, marked by the “will to win within the rules” (824). If the collegiate athletes received a salary for playing, could this be signify that the players have not distanced themselves enough from the game? He also states that schools are places where activities and practices with a social function are converted into “bodily exercises, activities which are an end in themselves, a sort of physical art or art’s sake, governed by specific rules…” (823). When sports become the focus for character building, according to Bourdieu, it is implied that academic education becomes secondary to sporting prowess. 

I think we can see this happening in Kain Colter’s case very clearly. Regardless of the Truth, he claims that his intentions of becoming an orthopedic surgeon were not supported and he was advised to take “easier” courses. He was obviously valued for his athletic abilities, and leaders of the football program disregarded his academic goals. Valuing sporting education over academic education imposes a new role onto previously existing academic institutions. While sports have played a prominent role in universities for years—American football was created in the universities, after all—I think what we’re beginning to see is a shift in values in these institutions. Colleges are no longer just for continuing academic education. They are also stepping-stones for those athletes who are bound for the professional leagues; they are the most prominent feeder programs for the NBA and the NFL, and we can see this in the hyper-commodification of college sports.

However, I do believe that educational institutions have a responsibility to remain committed to education. With that said, I support Northwestern’s stance on the position. The student-athletes should receive scholarships, academic encouragement, and full medical coverage for sport-related injuries. Other parties have suggested that scholarships be extended to cover the costs associated with attending college that aren’t covered by the scholarships, like transportation and school supplies; extending the financial benefits would close the gap in the cost of attendance. Providing non-salary based compensation also keeps college sports amateur, at least according to the sports-law professor.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are expected to rule whether the student-athletes are employees of the university by the end of the month, which will then determine the course of the players’ efforts to unionize.