Is Sport the Last Bastion of Prejudice in the UK?

The 2012 London Olympics created a momentous sense of national pride and gave the British people numerous stars from diverse backgrounds. Jessica Ennis, Mo Farrah and Nicola Adams proved that being mixed race, immigrant or gay is no barrier to popularity. Through sport, we transfer our own hopes onto individuals or teams that represent us but, when we are disappointed, why does prejudice take over and why are some subjects still seen as ‘fair game’ to crowds?

There have been many pro-active campaigns urging sports fans to ‘Kick Out’ racism or ‘Hit It For Six’. It is difficult to suggest that these programmes have failed (there is certainly less tolerance of overtly racist language today) but with significant cases involving high profile stars and incidents of fans being prosecuted for racial abuse, it certainly hasn’t been eradicated. Instances of someone being called a “Black B******” and Nazi salutes are, fortunately, less prevalent but the language and symbolism used today can be no less offensive.

Aside from the sectarian divide in Glasgow, there are few genuine rivalries fuelled by religion in British football yet regional prejudice is just as prevalent. Liverpool fans have, for years, been ridiculed for the lack of employment on Merseyside and the term “Bin-Dipper” (suggesting the need to scavenge around for food) is habitually thrown around by fans from Manchester or London. This may be seen by some as light-hearted representation but offensive stereotyping of people according to region still occurs in football culture. A recent cartoon suggested that hundreds of Bradford fans going to Wembley would be Muslim, desperately clinging to the side of a train. Is there any other area of society where this would be acceptable?

Tottenham fans with a flag
Tottenham fans reclaim a racially offensive term that was once used to insult them

Tottenham fans, traditionally drawn from the Jewish areas of North London, were subjected to numerous anti-Semitic chants from rival fans in the 1970s. As a response, the derogative word “Yid” has now been adopted as a positive term by fans and a part of their identity as a supporter, even if they have never entered a synagogue. “Yid Army” is a regular communal chant and a booming cry of “Yiddo” is often a used in praise of a Spurs player, the cultural meaning behind the word seemingly lost years ago. That you will probably find just as many Jewish fans at Stamford Bridge or The Emirates is immaterial. The short film “The Y Word” made in conjunction with the Kick It Out campaign suggest that “Yid”, a term used for persecuted Jews in the 1930s, is an unacceptably racist word in any context and that a football ground is no different  to any other public location. Offensive language towards black or Asian footballers is not tolerated at football grounds, so why should “Yid” be acceptable and what would the reaction be If Bradford fans sarcastically referred to themselves as “P*** Army”?

A photo of cricketer Basil D'Oliveira
Basil D’Oliveira, whom South Africa refused to play against because of his race leading to their sporting isolation

Whilst the low proportion of British Asians becoming professional footballers is noticeable, there are numerous Asian cricketers to have represented England with a very successful spell under the captaincy of Nasser Hussain. Despite the cultural diversity of the sport, there remain undercurrents of racism at the top level. Since the Basil D’Oliveira affair in 1968 and South Africa’s subsequent 20 year sporting isolation the sport has made great inroads but there are still cultural issues that prevail. From Tony Greig’s taunt that England would make the West Indies “grovel” in 1976 through to racial insults in recent matches between Australia and India, tensions remain. In 2012 former batsman Greg Ritchie was banned from grounds by Cricket Australia following a series of comments and slurs against Muslims. That Ritchie himself saw no harm in ‘blacking up’ and using the word ‘Kaffir’ (a derogatory term for black people in South Africa) suggests many attitudes are still stuck in the 1980s.

Women’s sport, even during the Olympics, is often presented as secondary to men’s events and the way women are presented by the media is still often grossly patronising. Whilst presenters like Claire Balding, Hazel Irvine and Sue Barker are supreme hosts, women are very rarely asked to contribute opinions to a sporting debate. Jacqui Oatley, the first woman to commentate on ‘Match Of The Day’ was quickly dropped, the male dominated audience apparently unable to accept a female voice opining about football and Des Lynam referring to the female voice as “grating” for commentary. Whilst this attitude is maintained and we still get scantily clad cheerleaders parading around boxing rings and motorsport tracks, women will struggle to be taken seriously in the sporting world.

Despite their fan-base, there are private issues with which sports stars will feel uncomfortable. Rugby Union’s Gareth Jenkins and cricket’s Steven Davies are the highest profile openly gay British sportsmen but the first ‘out’ Premier League footballer seems a long way off. The suicides of Gary Speed in Britain and Robert Enke in Germany highlighted the fact that sports stars are young, often vulnerable people thrown into a spotlight lacking any emotional support. Cricketer Marcus Trescothick’s mental health revelation led to positive steps, many sports clubs and associations now offer mental health awareness training and team mates are more willing to understand and give support.

So why is abusing people seen as acceptable in the sporting arena? Do the same people who scream at players in the collective environment of a stadium or pub shout with similar venom in their homes? And why is it just sports stars who receive this level of abuse? If Denzel Washington makes a bad film people don’t blame his ethnicity. It can’t just about a communal gathering getting worked up, thousands turn up to Glastonbury each year but if Stevie Wonder is performing, no-one would abuse his race, age or disability.

Sport is the ultimate reality television. We experience the highs and lows along with the competitors and, with blanket TV coverage, feel we know those at the centre of the action. The promotion of events now makes them so important that when 50% of supporters are left disappointed, anger is inevitable. The fact that we can now instantly express our opinions via radio, television and the internet is not necessarily a good thing. Banter is not an excuse to give crass offense but, whilst the media presents sport in such a divisive form, many prejudices will still be seen as acceptable.

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