CONTENT NOTE: This piece will include examples of racism, rape culture, domestic violence and transphobia.
With the recent incidents concerning the footballer, Dani Alves – and the subsequent #weareallmonkeys hashtag, as well as LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling being banned from the NBA, it may give a false impression that the arenas of sport and politics can co-exist in relative comfort. However, the collision of the two is often a problematic one.
There are a few examples one can use to illustrate this, but the one I will focus on is the Liverpool footballer, Luis Suarez winning the 2013/14 FWA (Football Writers Association) Footballer of the Year award, with the Uruguayan’s racial abuse of Manchester United’s Patrice Evra in 2011 now largely ignored by the British football commentariat.
Suarez is an extremely talented footballer. And if the award was bestowed solely for on-pitch contributions, then he would be the stand-out performer. However, a cursory look at the FWA website, states that the award is given“…to the professional player who by precept and example is considered by a ballot of members to be the footballer of the year.”
While Suarez’s displays this season are not in question, his “example” post-2011 is. Recent comments reveal just how sorry he isn’t. As Dr. Maya Angelou said, “The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.” The racist abuse was emetic enough, but to do so and not show any contrition? That’s acceptable, why?
How have we got to a place where many Liverpool fans respond to any criticism of Suarez with overt racism – either trying to parse the “meaning” of his words – or refusal to involve themselves in the discussion?  A place where two of Britain’s most reputable football journalists ask if “his penitence is over”, and if he has attained “redemption”?
Are we in a state of play where one can be redeemed from propagating racist abuse (and showing no remorse) by being exceptional at football?
And the case of Luis Suarez isn’t an aberration where sport is concerned. When politics and sport intersect, it causes many fans to react as a toddler would to cough medicine. “Sport and politics should never mix” is a common refrain. They’re often seen as an unwanted interloper, only here to ruin our fun.
It’s easily forgotten – especially in the age of the “sports-industrial complex” – but sport is meant to be fun. It’s why so many people bother with it. It’s often the sweetener to the pill of our 9-to-5 culture. I imagine most people reading this have returned home from work, mentally drained, and are looking for something to alleviate the stresses of life.
The Times’ journalist, Simon Barnes commented on this; “You can check in logic and perspective when you grope for Sky Sports on the zapper, when you pass through the turnstile, when you turn over the newspaper in your hands and start reading backwards.”
Sport has an ability to bring sheer joy to millions. But it’s a feeling that sadly causes many sports fans to leave morality behind. The blissful aroma of victory becomes a pernicious opiate when one is willing to excuse any behaviour for the pursuit of success.
Suarez racially abuses someone? So what, he scores goals. Riley Cooper says he’ll “fight every n*gger here”? Meh, he’s a handy wide-receiver. Ray Rice is charged with assaulting his (then fiancee)? Yeah, but what a running back, though.
Sport functions too often as a synthetic environment, a comfort blanket insulating one from the rest of the world. But to quote Barnes again, he states,“…the trouble with pretend worlds is that they exist in the real one.”
Issues of sporting bigotry aren’t separate from the rest of our lives. Joey Barton (who has spoken in favour of accepting gay footballers) tweeting transphobia is a microcosm of the permissible allowances made for transphobia in our society. The incessant stories of sexual assault taking place in both North American and British sport are a reflection of society’s rape culture, while those cheering on England during this summer’s World Cup may want to be aware of the propensity for incidents of domestic violence increasing during England matches.
I also wryly shake my head when I see how the British press have – tentatively – approached the topic of the lack of diversity in the nation’s football managers, yet seem unwilling to ask the same questions of the dominance of white (male) faces in their own profession.
As the great Audre Lorde said, “There’s is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” I can be an avid viewer of the World Cup, while finding Brazil’s treatment of its citizens abhorrent. I can be rapt by the Super Bowl, yet think airing a half-time commercial promoting Sodastream is beyond the pale.
And I can want sport to be a place where escapism is a genuine possibility. A place where the only obstacle to achievement is one’s talent and work ethic. A place where we can focus solely on athletic talent, where outside interests don’t exploit sport’s inherent joy.
But until that day comes, we can’t delineate between the athlete and the person, because the two aren’t separate.
And we can’t delineate between sport and politics. Because the two aren’t separate.
 – The embedded piece was written towards the end of last season.
 – And yes, Liverpool fans, I hold John Terry in equal contempt.
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A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’ ‘the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).
- Football, who’s the victim? (mediadiversified.org.)
- Can you name 10 black football managers? (mediadiversified.org.)
- From Roy Hodgson to Carol Thatcher, this fixation on celebrity gaffes tells us nothing about racism | Joseph Harker (guardian.com)
- 3D Racism – Denial, Disclaimers and Doubt (mediadiversified.org.)