• Niall O'Carroll

Glasshouse Reaction to Bulgarian Racism Highlights Workload Closer to Home

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Toni Morrison

In this week’s article starts political for a reason. While I was deciding what I wanted to write about this week, and let’s face it the easy option would have been another Irish team capitulating in the face of expectation, a depressing image came into my mind of the English Football team suffering outrageous racist abuse in Bulgaria in a Euro qualifier. 

Bulgarian racists hurled abuse at England players during their recent qualifier

The pundits and media in general rightly highlighted the shocking behaviour and demanded action be taken. However what I found most depressing was the almost cocky attitude of some in the English media who were suggesting this is somehow an issue for FIFA/UEFA and johnny foreigner to sort out.

This in a week where Manchester United had to eject a fan for racially abusing Liverpool player Trent Alexander-Arnold. An F.A. Youth Cup game had to be abandoned when players decided they had taken enough abuse and walked off the pitch.

This season alone we have seen fans banned for life from Chelsea FC for racially abusing Raheem Sterling while Marcos Rashford and Paul Pogba were racially attacked on twitter for missing penalties. 

The tone of the anti racism initiatives across the world is almost putting the solution on players and referees to abandon games rather than addressing the real issue of education and xenophobia. We live in a political world now where division and difference are celebrated. 

Abraham Lincoln famously said “When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.” Abraham Lincoln Letter to Joshua Speed Springfield, Illinois August 24, 1855

Well it would appear that the ‘know nothings’ are in power in Sport as well as politics now. 

I wonder if banning fans or playing games behind closed doors actually has any impact. Behaviour at football games is completely different to what you can expect in other sporting environments. That’s not to say that racism is not an issue for other sports. Racism is an issue for society.

One of my favourite people to speak to is British psychologist John Amaechi. John is outspoken on a range of discriminatory issues that exist in society.  Having played professional Basketball in the NBA for ten years he is a fascinating voice on racism and discrimination against groups like the LBGT community in sport and in the greater community.

I once asked John what he felt was his biggest issue about being back living in the UK and his reply was “I love being back but i don’t love trying to hale a cab as 6’8’’ black man at 2 am”.

Amaechi said: “This made me realise the FA is the Saatchi of diversity and equality – they make great posters but they don’t do anything.” There appears to be almost a malaise that things will eventually right themselves. 

Amaechi disagrees “Change doesn’t come with time. Time is just the substrate upon which we can make choices, or not”.

Chris Hughton manager of Brigthon in the Premier League and former Irish international spoke of his experiences in the past as a player.  

“Those were also the days where the perception of black players was that,” ‘they can play on the wing, and they’re really quick, but they’re not captaincy or organisation material” Chris Hughton The Irish Times in 2017.

The perception that black players would not make great leaders hasn’t changed apparently. Indeed at the start of the 2019/2020 season there were only six black or ethnic minority managers in the 92 clubs in the four professional divisions in England according to the League Managers Association. 

In the GAA players like Lee Chin, Jason Sherlock and Sean Og O’Halpin have spoken about issues surrounding race while Simon Zebo complained of abuse at a game in Ravenhill at a Champions Cup while playing for Racing 92.

The issue with all forms of racism is the inaction by fellow players, managers or indeed supporters.

“Throughout history, the percentage of bystanders in any society has dictated the pace and direction of change…it’s actually the preponderance of bystanders that is killing us.” John Amaechi

The heartening thing about the incident at Man Utd on Sunday was that the idiot who was racially abusing Alexander-Arnold was actually reported to the stewards by fans in the crowd around him who refused to tolerate his behaviour. 

This made me think of Jamie Carragher’s admission this week that he was embarrassed by his decision to wear a t-shirt in support of Luis Suarez who had been banned for racially abusing Patrice Evra in a game.

Carragher said “There is no doubt that we made a massive mistake…I as an individual, lacked the courage to say I wasn’t wearing it”.

Patrice Evra in discussing the same incident spoke eloquently of how he had been painted the villian for objecting to being picked on because of the colour of his skin. This mindset still prevails.

Last year Moise Keen a 19 year old striker then with Juventus in the Serie A came under fire for celebrating a goal by standing with his arms outstretched in front of the opposition fans having been subjected to monkey chants and abusive comments throughout the game.

The really surprising aspect of this is that the criticsm came from his own team mate and manager. The suggestion being he is immature and should be better at handling the abuse. The opposition president Tommaso Giulini said “Kean made a mistake, he’s 19, that’s understandable,”

Thus defending his own fans behaviour based on their reaction to a 19-year old’s goal celebration. It is this kind of nonsense that can’t be tolerated and needs to be addressed.

Another incident involving an Italian pundit suggesting that the only way to stop Romalu Lukaku was to “maybe give him ten bananas to eat” led Lukaku to suggesting  “we are going backwards on the issue of racism”.

This is not a sport issue it is a society one. Education is the key. Simply banning people from grounds or having catchy marketing slogans does not address the issue. A collective societal change is needed. This is something that all of us could potentially witness at any sporting event in our town, city, country on any given weekend. 

The challenge is for us to put ourselves in the place of the kid who is hearing this nonsense and deciding that it is not ok to ignore it. Mahatma Ghandi encouraged people to “be the change you want to see in the world”. 

John Amechi calls this his Everyday Jedi initiative.

He says “Jedi have always known that fear is the path to the dark side, but we’ve evolved to understand that it’s ignorance that leads to fear, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering.” Channel your inner Jedi this weekend. Use your force,