Sterling, Alves and why racism continues to dog sport worldwide

The cases of Donald Sterling in the US and Dani Alves in Spain serve to emphasise that sport – and society – still has work to do to combat racism. EPA/Paul Buck

Two recent instances of sports-related racial abuse have seen athletes take strong, united stands against the scourge of racism. While the cases of Donald Sterling in the US and Dani Alves in Spain are geographically on opposite sides of the world, they serve to emphasise that sport – and society – still has work to do to combat racism.

Donald Sterling

Last week, celebrity news website TMZ released an audio recording of a conversation between Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, and his girlfriend V. Stiviano. Eighty-year old Sterling had taken offence at Stiviano posing for photographs with retired basketball player Earvin “Magic” Johnson because he is black.

Sterling also told Stiviano not to bring Johnson to games played by his team. His comments reveal a deep bigotry and ignorance.

I’m just saying, in your lousy f–––– Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.

Don’t put him [Magic] on an Instagram for the world to see … And don’t bring him to my games.

Sterling was roundly attacked by current and past basketball players, celebrities and US President Barack Obama. Clippers players staged a dignified and poignant protest in the warm-up before their next match, turning the team sweatshirts inside out so as not to display any club logos, as opposition to Sterling grew.

The Clippers players’ ‘silent’ protest.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) subsequently banned Sterling for life and fined him US$2.5 million, the maximum allowed under the NBA’s rules. It appears certain that Sterling’s fellow club owners will force him to sell the Clippers, which Forbes recently valued at US$575million.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver finished announcing the league’s decision by saying that racist views had “no place in the NBA”. This decision has won widespread support on social media from current and present players.

Dani Alves

The other recent incident of racist abuse in sport took place during a match between Spanish soccer clubs Barcelona and Villarreal. As Barcelona’s Brazilian right-back Dani Alves prepared to take a corner kick, a banana, thrown from the stands, landed on the pitch near him.

In response, Alves bent down, peeled the banana, and took a bite. He then discarded the remainder of the banana and carried on with the game.

The Dani Alves incident.

The banana thrower, Villarreal fan David Campaya Lleo, has been stripped of his season ticket, banned from the stadium for life by the club and arrested by Spanish police.

But while FIFA president Sepp Blatter has again reiterated in the wake of the Alves incident that racism will not be tolerated, the soccer world’s actions have continually contradicted this. Blatter himself has previously said that the sport did not have a problem with racism on the pitch and suggested that incidents of racism during matches could be settled by shaking hands.

The sanctions issued by FIFA have previously failed to adequately punish those guilty of racial abuse. They have consisted of warnings and small fines for the teams and countries involved.

For instance, FIFA fined the Greek and Croatian soccer governing bodies 30,000 Swiss francs and 35,000 Swiss francs respectively last November after reports of far-right salutes and banners among fans in World Cup qualifying games. These sanctions are lenient, particularly when compared to European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, fining Danish player Nicklas Bendtner £80,000 for promoting a betting company on his underwear.

Alves’ action has been widely praised and has sparked an internet campaign by players, TV presenters and politicians. The campaign has seen these public figures posing while eating bananas accompanied by the phrase “We Are All Monkeys” in English and other languages.

The aim is to turn the tables on those racist fans who have, for many years, aimed racist monkey chants and bananas at players.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and Italy’s national soccer coach Cesare Prandelli eat a banana in support of Dani Alves’ actions. EPA/Ettore Ferrari

A shameful history and the road ahead

Sadly, sport has a history of racial abuse that has necessitated athletes taking a stand against it. Perhaps the most famous example is the Black Power salute of African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games.

Black players in England were routinely forced to make stands against the racial abuse and threats that they faced during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In Australia, Nicky Winmar’s powerful stand in 1993 against the abuse he was subjected to raised awareness of racism in the AFL.

But the Sterling and Alves incidents prove that such stands against racism are still necessary today. While sports such as soccer and basketball have ethnically diverse players, this is sadly not the case in all sports.

The lack of diversity of head coaches and managers is also alarming. In English soccer there are no black managers in any of the top five divisions.

In 2003, the NFL in America introduced the Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head coach (and subsequently general manager) role. The Rooney Rule was brought in to address the lack of black or ethnic minority head coaches. Prior to the rule there had only been seven in 80 years.

The attitudes and actions of governing bodies that have previously refused to accept or recognise the seriousness of racism in sport are a cause for concern. While rules have been introduced to increase the diversity of coaches (and players), this is not the case with the boards and owners of sports organisations and governing bodies.

Many sports boards fail to reflect the diversity of those playing and watching the games. And when sports teams are owned by individuals such as Sterling there are clearly battles left to fight.

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