Discrimination in sports: a global problem

In today’s Sports Talk column, I look at several recent incidents where abuse from fans apparently seems ok, purely because they are sitting in the stands and not meeting in the street, as well as other situations where the attitude in and around clubs is homophobic and discriminatory. Space prevents a proper discussion, and the incidents selected are not always the best – just the most recent – but the point is that the underlying trend is hateful.

Sports can get ugly. There are fouls, bad sportsmanship and cheating, but then there’s something worse: abuse and discrimination, both on and off the field. That ugly side has again reared its head in recent days.

Last week, England’s soccer team was spat at and pelted with missiles by Montenegrin fans. But, incredibly, a few days earlier, England fans had abused some of their own players, brothers Rio and Anton Ferdinand: Some will dismiss this as “banter,” but the racist overtones involved with a song about two black players being burned on a bonfire are clear.

On Friday, Chinese soccer player Huang Bowen was showered with abuse by fans of his former team Beijing Guoan, when he bravely tried to applaud them when walking off the field. Now that he plays for Guangzhou Evergrande, it was perhaps naive for Huang to expect anything less than a hostile response, but he didn’t deserve to have drinks thrown on him for what was clearly a heartfelt gesture.
ImageThe examples – usually in soccer – are endless and the racist abuse found in Europe would be unthinkable in most sporting arenas in the US, but America has its own problems. Following recent reports that an active NFL player would come out as a homosexual, others have been quick to deride the situation: Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers said he wouldn’t want a gay player on his team, while Seattle Sea-hawk Chris Clemons said it would be selfish for an NFL player to come out, by making themselves more important than the team.

US soccer player Robbie Rogers, who has played for his country 18 times, came out earlier this year and then immediately retired, aged 25. While he still loves the sport, Rogers said he would rather stop playing than have to deal with the reaction of teammates in the locker room, not to mention that of opposing players and fans. Tellingly, though, he said that if he does return to the sport, it would be in the US not Europe, where there is more engrained homophobia.

The number of gay professional active sportsmen can be counted on the fingers of one hand – and none of them is in a major team sport, which, statistically, is nonsensical.

But until sportsmen stop using discriminatory slurs on a regular basis, and until it’s made clear to fans that vile abuse is no longer acceptable, don’t expect to see a player come out anytime soon.

Article reposted from today’s Global Times. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for home fans doing whatever they can to create a hostile environment for opposing players, but not when it crosses over into hate speech.

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