If sport is supposed to be an equal playing field, why are Black people bearing the brunt?

·5-min read
Photo credit: Alex Livesey - Danehouse
Photo credit: Alex Livesey - Danehouse

"All I can say is sorry," wrote Marcus Rashford, English football player and internationally-acclaimed social activist in his latest Instagram post. “[…] Your failures are mine. I’ve grown into a sport where I expect to read things written about myself. Whether it be the colour of my skin, where I grew up, or, most recently, how I decide to spend my time off the pitch. I can take critique of my performance all day long, my penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in, but I will never apologise for who I am and where I came from.”

It is not easy for a Black man to admit defeat – our lives have been uphill so conceding is not a luxury we have available to us. We have had to work harder and longer for our successes and recognition. We know that our acceptance is not firm ground, but it always hurts to have the idea confirmed, as it was following the England v Italy final on Saturday. Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka shouldn’t feel guilty of missing the back of that net – they bore the weight of the nation’s feverish expectations and created a sense of togetherness after a year of peaked division. In return for their efforts, they have received widespread racist abuse on social media, which proves once more how much more work there is to do to eradicate racism in Britain and beyond.

Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths
Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths

Take a moment to think of social justice. It’s a troubled conversation, despite the obvious disparity in how Black and white men are treated by our justice system – as evidenced by the Capitol rioters earlier this year. The appalling vehemence of discrimination against Black and Brown communities is nothing new. In Britain, to understand the inequalities faced by ethnic groups, look no further than the government’s own figures. The normalisation of racist practices in sports, a long-standing problem in football, hit a crescendo this weekend, highlighting a harrowing sentiment of conflict. A Manchester mural of Marcus Rashford was defaced (although now covered with beautiful messages of support and pride), and each of the Black players who missed the penalty was bombarded with racist abuse. To some, filling a Black man’s timeline with monkey-faced emojis and bananas seems like an amusing act of heroism. “I mean, why would it not,” a user tweeted earlier yesterday, whose account was permanently suspended a few hours later. Who will hold these racists to account? Social media companies must take action.

The Black and Brown people who chanted beyond the sake of goals and winning, who watched and cheered out of support for the hard work of Black athletes both on and off the pitch, hold important views that stretch at the heart of the nation’s future. We were reminded on Saturday night that our cultural acceptance is very much conditional. When we’re winning, we’re English, when we fall short we’re back to Black. Do Black lives truly matter to those who continuously fail to acknowledge the brilliance of Black people, and – in this case - Black football players throughout such an important tournament? If the players taking those fateful missed penalties were white, would they have received the same level of abuse? We know the answer to that one.

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It is why the British government must be consistent and committed in its stand against racism. It must send a clear message at every available juncture that racism will not be tolerated. Ambiguity and hypocrisy are dangerous bedfellows that enable a culture of racism to thrive. Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have both condemned the abuse faced by the three England Black players, but in May showed a lack of support to players who took the knee before matches as a show of anti-racism. In fact, Patel said that football fans were within the rights to boo those who did take the knee, dismissing it as ‘gesture politics’. Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has accused the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary of having given “licence to the racists who booed the England players and are now racially abusing England players”, while England player Tyrone Mings said, “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens.” The reality is that in the world of football (just like in many other spheres), the system thrives from exploiting minorities. We can’t allow a small faction of racists to be the dominant voice in our society; we must be louder and stronger.

Let’s go back to Rashford’s apology. This is a man who has spent the last year helping and supporting the most vulnerable families in our society at a time when those in power did not. Then – through this tournament and with his astonishingly talented team players – he created unity across the country. He and the England team have lifted our spirits and exceeded our expectations. They embody diversity and talent; they gave us cause to feel, albeit briefly, proud to be British. If anyone has cause to feel proud, it’s Rashford and yet here he is with a heartfelt, humbling apology. Hopefully, moving forward, there won’t be a need for one.

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