Substantive change, or all for show?

The Black Lives Matter Movement has forced the sporting world to look in the mirror, but has the reflection truly changed?

Following the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter Movement erupted, not only in terms of its relevance, but in its exposure. The globe united in protest against not just the horrific murder of Floyd, but against systematic racism as a whole. Enough was apparently enough. During the most unprecedented of times, politicians, corporations, regular citizens, and sportspeople alike banded together to try and ensure that the stain of racism and discrimination could be eviscerated once and for all. There were promises that new behaviours would be learned, that equality would prevail, and that oppressors would become students. The world of sport was no different. Footballers, as well as basketball and American football players, proudly adorned BLM badges on their jerseys, and powerfully took a knee with the eyes of the world watching.

“Richards spoke with incredible depth and grace about the abuse he faced as a child. ‘Monkey noises,’ being dismissed as a ‘typical black man’ when he was angry.”

However, the partnership between the movement and sporting bodies has served not to eliminate racism, but to expose its prominence at sport’s very core. In the months following the height of public interest in BLM, racist incidents, particularly in sport, have continued to come to the forefront. For example, following his appointment to Sky’s famous Premier League Show, “Soccer Saturday,” former Manchester City defender Micah Richards, as well as former professional footballer Alex Scott, have had to endure torrents of racially-charged abuse on Twitter. All the while, users around the world receive a notification from their Sky Sports app that the broadcasting company is working hard to develop a new “BLM slogan”. At the time of writing, there has been no statement from Sky on the abuse Richards and Scott have endured, nor has there been any kind of substantive action taken against the so-called trolls harassing them. Upon his appointment, Richards spoke with incredible depth and grace about the abuse he faced as a child, from “monkey noises,” to being dismissed as a “typical black man” when he was angry. Twenty years on, Richards is facing exactly the same abuse, just on a different forum. Despite his employer’s alignment with BLM, they have failed to take the necessary substantive action capable of protecting him.

A similar contradiction has come to the fore in the world of Formula One. Despite the umbrella organisation announcing its support for BLM, and by extension, one would imagine, its support for the message of the movement, the reaction of drivers and fans alike has been substantially different. In July, a time when the proliferation of BLM was at its greatest in sport, Renault Driver Daniel Riccairdo noted that seven drivers refused to take a knee in recognition of the movement due to their nationality. Riccairdo would have been correct to lambast or call these drivers to account, but instead claimed that he “understood” their reasons. These reasons are supposedly linked to the driver’s nationality, but in reality, this refusal to take a knee would indicate the drivers are just unsympathetic to the movement’s calls for racial justice and equality. Similarly, in the opening weeks of Formula One’s Association with BLM, organisers failed to allocate time in the drivers’ itineraries to take part in “taking a knee”. As is the case with the Premier League, incidents like this seem to demonstrate that sporting bodies’ affiliation with BLM is nothing more than aesthetic, an attitude which manifests itself in the form of ignorance among athletes who also claim to support the movement.

Perhaps the most worrying of these incidents is the stance of the sportspeople themselves. While Riccairdo’s reluctance to call his fellow drivers to account is undoubtedly shameful, Richards too has faced a conspicuous lack of support from his fellow professionals against the abuse he has endured. What is particularly damning when assessing the actual impact of BLM in sport is that when Lewis Hamilton, one of the finest F1 drivers of all time, spoke out against the organisation’s insubstantial support of BLM, he was accused by motorsport legend Mario Andretti of being “militant” and “pretentious”. This is the type of reaction black athletes who seek substantive rather than performative change are facing from officials within organisations who, clearly synthetically, claim to support BLM. From a bird’s eye view at least, it seems that sporting bodies’ partnership with BLM has served not to support black athletes, but to leave them more isolated than ever.

This phenomenon is something that should not be surprising to sports fans, particularly those in America. Colin Kaepernick, a former American football player and current free agent, was one of the first athletes worldwide to take a knee. His actions were dismissed as “shameful” by President Donald Trump. He did not experience wide support or solidarity, instead he was lambasted for protesting during the sacred American national anthem. To this day, despite an undoubtedly positive partnership with Nike, Kaepernick is without a job, as NFL clubs refuse to hire him. This point was raised at George Floyd’s funeral by renowned civil rights activist Al Sharpton: “Do not come with an apology. We do not want an apology. We want him repaired. Give Colin Kaepernick a job.”

“People like Colin Kaepernick deserve to be celebrated, and most importantly, employed.”

The point Sharpton touched upon so eloquently is universally valid. While sporting bodies affiliating themselves with BLM through slogans and badges is a step in the right direction, more substantive action is necessary to defeat racism. People of colour need authentic, not performative justice. People like Colin Kaepernick deserve to be celebrated, and most importantly, employed. Organisations such as the English Football League need to address the fact that there is currently only six non-white managers across all of its divisions, before they claim to support BLM. Formula One needs to support its champion drivers, before they claim to be taking part in the fight against racism.

Indeed, while affiliation with BLM has effectively cast a mirror on the world of sport, what it reflects is yet to meaningfully change. For that to happen, sporting bodies need to focus less on slogans, and more on protecting their athletes with actions, not words.

Jonathon Boylan

Jonathon Boylan is a Deputy Sports editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister Law student.