England's Bukayo Saka's decisive penalty miss in the Euro 2020 final against Italy has opened up the floodgate of the ever-present issue of racism in sports. Unfortunately, it happened at a time when the 'Black Lives Matter' movement is gaining traction and athletes of almost all kinds are taking the knees in a sport event as symbolic solidarity to the cause.
What has then actually propelled the racial slurs Saka and his two other fellow penalty missers Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho--all people of colour--received, mostly in social media? Is it because the access to athletes offered by social media has given a chance to vent out unrestrained anger after their failures to bring glory or there is more to it?
To find out, we need to delve deeper into the issue.
A general lack of acceptance and understanding
Saka's family is Nigerian. He had the option to play for Nigeria and England, but he opted for the latter as he was born there. In fact, a large chunk of the England national team is composed of players who come from immigrant families.
Unfortunately, some people in England still have not accepted these players of colour as one of their own. To be precise, it is not the people of colour--that idiomatic casserole of culture and identities--it is indeed the 'black people' they mostly have a problem with.
Football's racism watchdog, Kick It Out, reported a 53% increase in reported incidents of racial abuse against black player in the professional game between the 2018-2019 season and the 2019-2020 season (up from 184 to 282) – and this despite games being held behind closed doors during the latter stages of the season because of the pandemic.
Crystal Palace and Ivory Coast footballer Wilfried Zaha said he faces racist abuse almost every time he steps on a football pitch."Nearly every game, I'm called a monkey or a n***** or a whatever," Zaha told The Jackal magazine.
Even when matches started to be played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus, racist abuse continued to haunt footballers – via social media. Zaha and Sheffield United striker David McGoldrick both shared they received racist abuse on social media shortly after the Premier League returned after lockdown.
According to an Al Jazeera report, some of the English football supporters even go to extreme lengths to intimidate black people in the UK. In June last year, a 'White Lives Matter' banner was flown over the Etihad Football Stadium as Manchester City's home game against Burnley began, just minutes after players from both teams had taken the knee in support of 'Black Lives Matter.'
Ironically, this prejudice against black players is not just present in the UK. Outbursts of racism have long disfigured games in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, but the frequency with which they have occurred in the last few years is especially alarming, given the rising nationalist tide across the world.
Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku had been subjected to racist chants from the opposition ultras who later tried to explain to Lukaku via an open letter that they were simply trying to out him off his game and it's not racist, without understanding the historical connotations of what they said by calling him a 'monkey'.
Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly also suffered racist abuse during a 1-0 defeat to Inter Milan in December, when manager Carlo Ancelotti admitted his player was "subjected to monkey noises throughout the game."
The situation had grown so troubling that the Italian league's clubs were moved to action themselves. In November last year, all 20 released a public statement admitting they had "not done enough" to address racism in Italian football, and informing the country's authorities that now was the time for "serious change."
The underlying reasons
There is a lot of hand-wringing, and blaming, of social media for racial slurs against the black players. Twitter and other mediums are of course part of the problem, but the issue is far deeper. The issue is cultural. The issue is a purely human one.
Hatred always seems to find an unending source of fuel. It defeats hashtags, speeches and common sense. It's the most potent enemy today; more contagious than any virus and more threatening than any asteroid. Hatred is so consuming that it takes a wonderful game like football--a pure, beautiful game--and transforms it into something ugly.
In her book, 'Pitch Invaders: The Modern Black Football Revolution,' Stella Orakwue wrote that black players are judged "not on the basis of their individuality but on the basis of concocted group characteristics, enshrined in mythology."
The fact is, how people who are racist are brought up, the values they are taught, the history of black slavery are all aspects that need to be looked at here. Add to that, the history of African origin people being slaves to whites in America and Jamaicans being slaves to whites in England, and you get a clearer picture of how deep-rooted the discrimination is.
.One of England's greatest leaders, Winston Churchill was a racist. In 1937, he told the Palestine Royal Commission: "I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."
And their current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson recently described Muslim women as 'letterboxes' and black people as 'piccaninnies.' Boris has also refused to condemn people for booing players when they take the knee.
Gary Neville, a former Manchester United player and now a TV broadcaster, recently said he wasn't surprised the three players were targeted after the Euro 2020 final.
"Our Prime Minister said it was OK for the population of this country to boo those players who are trying to promote equality and defend against racism," he said on Sky News. "It starts at the very top, and so for me, I wasn't surprised in the slightest that I woke up this morning to those headlines."
The stereotypical thoughts about black athletes
Many of the racial stereotypes in football, in general in sports, are traceable back to the pseudo race sciences that emerged in the 1800s, and particularly to social Darwinism. This held that white people were the most evolved race in terms of intellect, morality and character, and as such, did not require physical prowess.
Black people, on the other hand, were considered to be the least evolved, inherently violent, lazy, intellectually limited and lacking in character – they conversely needed greater physical strength than white people.
This facilitated the view that black people were inherently suited to physical activities rather than cognitive tasks. It was seen as making them natural athletes. As Dean Cromwell, coach to the University of Southern California track and US Olympic sprint teams, wrote in 1941: "It was not long ago that the African Americans athlete's ability to sprint and jump was a life-and-death matter to him in the jungle."
Ideas of black people as natural athletes contribute to wider social myths of black people as hyperphysical, uncontrollably strong and cognitively challenged. These ideas have very real consequences for black communities across the Occident.
This perception often legitimises brutality by the state. According to a report of The Guardian, in 2020 black-heritage young people were three times more likely to be tasered by police for the same crimes as white criminals in the UK. And black people with mental health conditions were more likely to be detained when compared to all other ethnic-groups.
There are anti-hate groups working tirelessly to drain this swamp. Twitter says it has removed thousands of tweets and permanently banned some accounts for making racist remarks. Yet Twitter has done something like this before, and the racist incidents keep happening.