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.”