During Manchester City’s 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in early December, Raheem Sterling was racially abused by a small section of the home supporters at Stamford Bridge. Four fans were banned indefinitely from attending future home games at the west London club, but the incident was just the latest in a string of xenophobic incidents that occurred during recent matches in the UK. Reflecting on the incident, Declan Lynch made a direct link between the rise of racist activity at games and Brexit. On Newstalk’s Off the Ball, he stated: “Brexit for me, is a synonym for racism. The reason that Brexit is unworkable is that it was never a plan, it’s a kind of fever, and what is essentially driving that fever is racism.”
Of course, Sterling’s ordeal is not an isolated incident; on December 2, a banana skin was thrown at Arsenal and Gabon striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the North London Derby. Meanwhile, in Italy, Senegalese defender, Kalidou Koulibaly was taunted with monkey chants at Inter Milan while playing for Napoli. Football has always had issues with racist behaviour at matches, and though these despicable acts should not be tolerated, the mentality amongst outside observers is that such a thing would never happen in other sports. Certainly, it would never happen in Ireland.
Ireland rugby international Simon Zebo’s trip to Ravenhill three weeks ago disproved that notion. Zebo, playing for French club Racing 92, came to Belfast to take on Ulster. During the game, it is alleged that he was verbally abused by a home fan with an unspecified racial slur. Zebo took to Twitter to express his disappointment at the whole incident. Since then Racing have released a statement condemning the behaviour and Ulster have handed a lifetime ban down to said fan.
The unfortunate reality is that these sanctions cannot fully prevent this from happening again; all it takes is one narrow-minded idiot to disturb the peace. More upsetting still is that it is happening so close to home with Zebo, one of the most loved and most successful Irish athletes in recent years. The feeling now is that if it can happen to an Irish player in Ireland it can happen to anyone anywhere.
Of course, Northern Ireland is experiencing a period of political uncertainty, between Brexit and the fact that they effectively have no government. The prospect of a hard border between North and South has also re-awoken political and social tensions that have been more or less dormant since the end of the Troubles. Moreover, there has been a spike in xenophobic activity across the UK since the fateful vote to leave the EU in 2016. Perhaps the Zebo affair is just this recent wave of bigotry landing across the Irish Sea. However, it is the responsibility of sporting bodies in the Republic to ensure that this same phenomenon does not affect their teams, coaches, fans, or players.
Ireland is experiencing something of a golden age in terms of sporting success. The Irish rugby team are embarking on what could be the most successful year in their history. Rowing in Ireland is in an exciting place with less than 18 months until the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Even the football team looks set to bounce back from a torrid 2018 with qualification for the European Championships fast approaching. Central to this renaissance is the young talents that have emerged in the last few years, some of whom come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Bundee Aki, Sanita Puspure, and Michael Obafemi are all incredibly promising sportspeople, but they are also vulnerable to the increase in racist activity. It would be a tragedy to let Ireland become yet another sporting environment in which your race or ethnicity is a mitigating factor in whether you are allowed to don the green jersey.
“Unfortunately, the question of race has already influenced an athlete’s ability to represent a certain country, or play a certain sport at all.”
Unfortunately, the question of race has already influenced an athlete’s ability to represent a certain country, or play a certain sport at all. In the US, quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been virtually exiled from the NFL for taking a stance – or rather taking a knee – against the growth of racial ignorance by refusing to acknowledge the national anthem before games. Mesut Özil has retired from playing international football for Germany, citing “racism and disrespect” as the main reasons.
Fans of Irish sport will be reminded of the issue surrounding Shelbourne player, Joseph Ndo in 2005. Ndo suffered a torrent of racist abuse when the Dublin side travelled to Steaua Bucharest in a Champions League second round qualifier. Ndo’s experiences led to the conception of the Show Racism the Red Card campaign, which has done a considerable amount to explicitly eradicate the blight of racism from Irish sport. In short, the country has come a long way in its crusade against bigotry and hatred.
However, racial stereotyping is still omnipresent in a much more nuanced form in sport. In an article for the Guardian in October, Andrew Lawrence illustrated how black athletes are held to a different standard in terms of academic ability by managers, the media, and even fans. He refers to a study on media depiction of black athletes, carried out by Dr Cynthia Frisby, a professor at the University of Missouri.
According to Lawrence, her findings indicated that black male athletes were consistently shown in a negative light, which gives rise to “spurious concept known as stacking”, in which, as Lawrence puts it: “Athletes are viewed as being particularly well suited to play certain positions based on race or ethnicity.” These notions are troubling, not just because it endorses racial profiling, but also creates divisions between minority athletes and their supposedly inferior white counterparts. This may lead to jealousy and impermeable barriers between teammates. Perhaps it is this more subtle variety of racism that has contributed to the latest surge.
“Sporting bodies across the globe should, therefore, do their utmost to remedy this current epidemic.”
All these developments come with Tokyo 2020 looming large. The Olympics is the most watched sporting event in the world. It is also no stranger to radical political and social change, particularly that which pertains to race. Since Rio 2016, there has been a massive shift in world politics towards far-right, anti-immigrant views. All this has created a hate-filled bubble in society, which may burst during the Games next July. Sporting bodies across the globe should, therefore, do their utmost to remedy this current epidemic, as to remain indifferent could have disastrous results.
What happened to Zebo is regrettable, as is what befell Sterling and Aubameyang. Lynch’s comments are completely correct; Brexit has no doubt played a part in this behaviour, and maybe as a result, nothing can be properly done to combat racism in the UK until that contentious issue is resolved. Regardless, the Irish sporting community needs to take a more direct stance against racism within sport, particularly with so much potential success on the horizon. In any case, Rio 2016 was not a great Games for Irish Olympians; to allow Tokyo 2020 to be equally as shameful would be a disaster.