We are all too familiar with the pervasive problem of racism in elite sport – particularly football.
Barely a week goes by where we don’t hear of black footballers being heckled and abused by racist fans, having bananas hurled at them, monkey noises chanted at them, being forced to play on by unsupportive teammates.
This isn’t a new phenomenon – the racial abuse of black footballers has been a problem for decades. But it is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racism in sport.
So, what about the sports that don’t dominate the back pages? Women’s sport, grassroots and amateur sport, the hundreds of sports that aren’t football? Racism exists here too, and it is discouraging BAME communities from taking part, and damaging the mental health of those who do.
Earlier this year, Sport England warned of a stark ethnicity gap in sport which sees black and minority ethnic people falling way short of the official physical activity targets.
Sport England highlighted ‘deep-rooted inequalities’ as a key cause, and said the whole sports sector needs to work together to solve this problem.
But for ethnic minority athletes playing sport today, the reality is that progress isn’t coming quick enough.
Adekite Fatuga-Dada plays football for Watford Ladies, and she wishes people understood that racism isn’t only a problem in men’s football in the UK. It’s something she has had to deal with since she started playing at a young age.
‘As a black woman in football I definitely experience a lot of subtle racism – it’s often so subtle that you can’t really call anyone out for it,’ Adekite tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Black women are not well represented in the the England Women’s team. It’s very disheartening to see that there is not really the possibility for progression in that way,’ she says.
‘If I wanted to play internationally, I would probably have to play for Nigeria, because I couldn’t see it happening with England.’
Adekite believes that part of this comes down to black women being deterred from getting into elite sport by negative experiences. She tells us she has been passed over for opportunities and not selected for teams in situations that she felt were completely unjust – and at least in part to do with her race.
‘It’s hard when it feels like people are overlooking your talent. When you know in your heart that you’re better than other people, and you’re not being selected – it makes you think, if I had a different skin colour, would that have gone differently?’ she says.
‘Of course, it’s sport, and that is what happens sometimes, but when it is happening to you consistently, you can’t help but notice those kinds of patterns.’
Adekite says she thinks racism in women’s football is different to the mainstream, overt, mob-mentality incidences you see in elite men’s football. In the women’s game it is more insidious, more structural, harder to define.
In 2017, The FA apologised to black player Eniola Aluko and mixed-race player Drew Spence for racist comments made by then England Women’s manager Mark Sampson.
Sampson joked that Eniola’s Nigerian relatives might have ebola, and he asked Drew how many times she had been arrested.
‘I’m Nigerian as well, so it was so disappointing to hear comments like that still being made,’ she says. ‘It’s awful that we are still in a place where people are facing treatment like that and assumptions being made about them because of the colour of their skin. Of course that’s going to put young black girls off from pushing their football and trying to reach that elite level.’
Racism in football is nothing new. Derek Bardowell, author of No Win Race, says it’s important to remember that sport is like any other institiution in the UK and, as such, will be structured with the same hierarchies and influenced by the same biases.
‘Let’s not divorce sport from society as a whole,’ Derek tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Sport is not some golden thing that exists on its own, it is not a meritocracy. Just because there is a large, visible presence of black people in some sections of sport, that doesn’t mean there is equality. A friend of mine uses the analysis of Guinness – right at the top, it’s all white – just like every other section of society. Sport is no different.’
Derek says that in order to tackle racism in sport, there needs to be a fundamental shift in investment, and in the structures of power in sport.
‘If the people who hold the power have no idea how to deal with racism, and have no lived experience of it, or even proximity to lived experience, then it will never be tackled,’ he says.
‘What’s missing at the moment is accountability and intentionality. We need powers in sport to have the right intentions about eradicating racism, and the accountability about why and where it exists.’
2018 research by the Sport and Recreation Alliance found that people from ethnic minorities suffer worse experiences in grassroots sport than white people – that’s your casual, social and weekend teams. So this isn’t only a problem for professional or elite athletes.
Amesh grew up in Bradford, and was always one of the few (or the only) Asian kids playing rugby, both as a youngster and as he got older.
He says the racial abuse he has had to deal with when he played both rugby and football, throughout his playing career actually conrtibuted to his depression, and caused him to doubt himself for a really long time.
‘The more diverse any environment is – whether that’s sport, or work, or anything – the better it’s going to be,’ Amesh tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Having more persepectives from people with different backgrounds is only ever going to be a benefit.’ But that isn’t what he saw growing up. Playing rugby, particularly once he got to university, was a largely white experience, and it has taken Amesh a lot of work to unpick the impact his experiences have had on his mental health.
‘When things happen to you as a kid, that obviously has a massive effect on you,’ he explains. ‘There were so many things that I just thought of as normal, and it was only when speaking to therapists and councillors in recent years that I’ve begun to realise that it wasn’t. I didn’t see it as bullying or racism at the time.’
On the football field, Amesh says he faced name-calling as a kid. He was called the P-word, he was told to go back ‘where he came from’, and this was from both players and other people’s parents. He says one of the problems in sport is that it is always his word against someone elses, and sometimes the line between acceptable sports banter and racist abuse gets blurred. It can be incredibly hard to call these things out.
He says one of the hardest things to come to terms with was the unfairness of the situation.
‘It just didn’t make sense to me – that I had to deal with that kind of stuff, when no one else on the team did. It was a councillor who actually pointed that out to me, about how the unfairness impacted me,’ he tells us.
‘And it was tricky because at the time, the coaches just didn’t care about it. Even if they ever did hear someone make a racist comment, it felt like they just couldn’t do anything about it anyway.’
Amesh has been working with councillors on his mental health for the last year, and he says it has been really helpful to look back over his experiences with sport, and to see how that had an impact on every area of his life.
‘I’ve had it in my mind, ever since those first experiences with racism and unfairness, that I don’t think I’m good enough,’ he says. ‘I always doubt myself. And it’s interesting to think that was the starting point.’
Measures are being taken to try to tackle the problem of racism in sport – racist fans are being hit with outright bans, more sports boards are working to improve their diversity – but progress is slow, and deterring BAME communities from all levels of sport could have huge implications for the mental and physical health of minorities.
Author Derek Bardowell says the only way to make real, significant change is to stop focusing on individual blame, and look at the bigger picture.
‘When we talk about racism, we tend to focus on individuals,’ he explains. ‘We look at racist chants at football crowds and see it as the responsibility of that one crowd, or that one team’s fans.
‘We need to look at this problem through a much wider lense and see the systemic causes of racism, rather than the individual.’
Sport is designed to be a space where anyone can succeed, regardless of race, beliefs or socioeconomic status. But at the moment, this idealistic dream of a level playing field just isn’t the reality.
The State of Racism
This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020.
We aim to look at how, where and why racist attitudes and biases impact people of colour from all walks of life.
It’s vital to improve the language we have to talk about racism and start the difficult conversations about inequality.
We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: [email protected]
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