The history of fighting against racial discrimination in sport is a long one

AS Black Lives Matter protests multiplied and continued in the US and around the world at the weekend, including in our own People’s Park, the cause was given a boost by the appearance of world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua at a rally in Watford, calling racism a ‘pandemic’.

A gathering People's Park, St Helier last Saturday for the 'Kneel for George Floyd' protest in support of Black Lives Matter
A gathering People's Park, St Helier last Saturday for the 'Kneel for George Floyd' protest in support of Black Lives Matter

It was hugely significant because Joshua is extremely popular, one of very few sporting superstars whose appeal transcends issues of colour. A popularity that defines his success as much as his boxing abilities. By taking the stand, he is taking a gamble on one of his greatest assets. There is no doubt that by making this appearance he would have lost a lot more fans than any he may have gained.

The Black Lives Matter protests have become a perceived threat by many of white society in the United States and United Kingdom because of ignorance, wilful or otherwise, designed to protect the hegemony. Racism is a growing problem in an era when a previous generation had fought so hard to try to eliminate it. Unfortunately, it appears it was only silenced.

‘We can no longer sit back and remain silent on these senseless, unlawful killings and sly racism on another human being based on what? Only their skin colour,’ said Joshua to a large gathering in his home town.

‘The virus has been declared a pandemic. This is out of control. And I’m not talking about Covid-19. The virus I’m talking about is called racism. We stand united against a virus which has been instrumental in taking lives, taking lives of the young, old, rich, poor; a virus which is unapologetic and spreads across all sectors.’

It was a brave decision by Joshua to make the stand, when so many black sportsmen and women are anxious to show their support for fear of upsetting their white paymasters and losing the status that they have worked so hard to achieve against the odds. As retold in the Netflix documentary The Last Dance, Michael Jordan famously said: ‘Republicans buy sneakers too’. Sadly inevitable, the backlash against one of our greatest athletes was immediate. On Twitter, where BBC Sport reposted its report of Joshua’s speech, the response was overwhelmingly negative, pathetically outraged but sickeningly inevitable with everyone looking for a cheap shot against Joshua’s call for black empowerment, turning the table to call out the boxer as a racist himself. It was a new low blow.

Black sportsmen and women have been taking the stand against systematic racism, discrimination and oppression for as long as they have been allowed to compete.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson famously became the first black man to play Major League Baseball in the modern era, heralding the end of racial segregation in the sport that had lasted since 1887 when franchise owners agreed to enact a rule that barred black players playing professionally. That decision came three years after one such incident when Cap Anson, the owner of Chicago White Sox demanded that the Toledo Blue Stockings not play Moses Walker, saying: ‘We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the n*****.’ The demand was ignored by Toledo, who duly played Walker in spite of being injured.

Robinson himself was subject to constant racial abuse and discrimination when he first made the Brooklyn Dodgers team, with even some team-mates suggesting they would not play on the same team as him and St Louis Cardinals also reportedly threatening to strike in protest to his inclusion.

At the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin, Robinson’s older brother Mack also encountered much discrimination at home and abroad. He finished second to Jessie Owens in the 200 metres, much to the mirth of Adolf Hitler, but when he returned home to California he was no more than a street cleaner in a white neighbourhood, treated with derision and suspicion. In a silent protest to his treatment, Mack Robinson wore his Olympic jacket to work, until the residents demanded that the local police force him to take it off.

Two of the most famous protests against racial discrimination in the United States came within a year of each other. In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused conscription into the US army to fight in the Vietnam war asking: ‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?’

Then, a year later at the Mexico Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the podium to collect their respective gold and bronze medals in the 200 metres, provided probably the most visual and iconic protest against racial discrimination when they bowed their heads and raised a black-gloved fist to indicate black power during the national anthem. The International International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage ordered Smith and Carlos be suspended from the US team immediately with a spokesman for the IOC stating that Smith and Carlos’s actions were ‘a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit’ despite Brundage having made no such objection against Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics when he was president of the United States Olympic Committee.

Someone who has not been remembered in The Last Dance was Bulls three-point specialist Craig Hodges, who, after the NBA 1992 championship win, went to the previously traditional White House visit wearing a dashiki and holding an eight-page letter for President George Bush Sr detailing the ordeals of the African-Americans. Hodges was subsequently released by Bulls and no other NBA team attempted to sign him, black-balled for being so outspoken.

Such treatment of a prominent black sports star, still at the peak of their powers, would be repeated twenty-four years later after San Francisco 49ers black quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to ‘take a knee’ during the national anthem before a game against the Green Bay Packers. It was a move that became every bit as iconic as the raised fist of Smith and Carlos but became all the more powerful as more sports stars followed suit in solidarity with Kaepernick. It has now become even more symbolic through its association with the black lives matter protests following the killing of George Floyd and objection to US social policies in general.

Like Hodges before him, Kaepernick was unable to attract a new contract from another NFL franchise after his one with the 49ers expired at the end of the season. ‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,’ he said after the game against the Packers. ‘To me this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.’

Closer to home, issues with how the press in Britain treat black footballers differently to their white peers was brought home by Raheem Sterling in 2018. In an Instagram post, Sterling highlighted the difference in tone that the Daily Mail took when negatively reporting a young black Manchester City team-mate Tosin Adarabioyo’s purchase of a £2 million pound property, in comparison to the positive report given about a young white team-mate, Phil Foden, doing the exact same thing.

The ugliness of systematic and institutionalised racism is deeply rooted in US society but Sterling exposed that while the UK may seem a more tolerant place, it isn’t without its problems too. It is an issue that is generally kept silent in Jersey as well but the amount of dissent to the protest in People’s Park on Saturday on social media spoke volumes. So it is worth reminding everyone of our own great and talented sports men and women of colour to have been born and/or raised on the Island – such as siblings Serena and Kurtis Guthrie, Jersey Bulls’ Kamen Nafkha and badminton Commonwealth Games medalists Elizabeth Cann and Mariana Agathangelou – and honour them by strongly opposing any form of racism at all times.

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