One of the most endearing images for me as a young man was in my Dad’s library. The Black Power Salute as it came to be known was one of the most politically charged and emotional charged protests made by athletes. John Carlos and Tommie Smith, two African Americans, gold and bronze medal winners of the 200m at the 1968 Mexico Olympics protested against the hypocrisy of the country that they sweat blood and tears to win medals for did not see them as equals. What struck me most about this was not only the blatant black glove and shoeless protest of the winners but also the solidarity shown by Peter Norman who wore a Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support of Carlos and Smith. When asked if he believed in human rights and God by the Americans, Norman declaring his faith and solidarity with the black sprinters from America said yes. He even suggested, according to Carlos, that the runners should share the left and right hand of one pair of gloves.
Norman still holds the record as the fastest Australian over 200m. He was reprimanded by Australian authorities and was even looked over them when the 2000 Olympics was held in Sydney until the Americans decided they wanted to use him. The film Salute was homage to him not being scrubbed out of the Australian record books. I can only imagine he smiled a wry smile when Cathy Freeman, won the 400m and donned the Aboriginal flag, something she had insisted on doing at two previous Commonwealth Games after winning her races. Something splendid about people being able to stand their ground even though it might come at great personal cost.
Of course people have tried to ignore the race issue in sport for a while. It is no secret that Jesse Owens was asked to dissuade the guys who gave balck power salute. In fact he is quoted as saying to Carlos and Smith:
“The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.”
Some couldn’t understand how he could do this considering he stood on a podium where a Nazi salute was given and the fact he was blatantly ignored for his outstanding accomplishments in the 1936 Berlin Olympics by both Roosevelt or Truman. In his book, I Have Changed, he retracted his statement even suggesting that not taking a stand was a sign of cowardice.
Racism in Football.
As a former Sunday leaguer and wanna be conference player I remember how terrible racism could be on the pitch. Sometimes leaving the safety of London to play away games was fraught with anxiety. White managers telling you to ignore the constant shouts of coon, nigger or golliwog was bloody awful. Coming out of double footed tackles and aggression is part and parcel of why those words will never ever seen by as terms of endearment, whether from a member of the BNP or some rapper. By rights in the modern game I would have been sent of more times than I did. Unlike the likes of players like those who broke ground in being professional players I would throw bananas or such times back. Good thing I never ended up there. Had to constantly tell my Mum that whole adage of ‘sticks and stones may break bones but words not hurting’ didn’t work. Every now I and then I believe such racism doesn’t exist either from players or supporters and then certain events like Suarez and the John Terry case show me we still have a ways to go. Bad enough that foreign leagues have rampant and explicit racism but you don’t expect in a forward thinking country like England.
The same emotions flooded back this week when I witnessed the England under 21 match against Serbia. Danny Rose was sent off after the final whistle (Wtf?) after he had enough of the monkey chants and kicked the ball into the crowd. Whilst commentators and ex players like Paul Parker state that he should have kept his cool, I truly understood the emotions going through that young players head. I am interested if those other players who were headbutted and shoved should also have just been cool. In an ideal world yes we can keep calm but the fact that the authorities do nothing to address this in the main and wash over racism is worrying in the beautiful game.
Yesterday’s refusal by Rio Ferdinand to wear the Kick it Out tshirt was a stand. There are those who think he was petulant, ranging from Viv Anderson to the actual Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. There are also those who support including the PFA themselves who are the ones who wanted the campaign to start. Sir Alex came down on Rio and if reports are to be believed has said he is going to deal with him to the tune of two weeks wages. Rio is no saint. His retweeting of an insult to Ashley Cole was inexcusable but his refusal to not wearing the tshirt, like Joleon Lescott’s is much bigger than Man Utd. This is about challenging a system, a way of thinking. Whilst some are happy to sit back and allow things to just trundle along I salute the bravery of those who would call out on the whole issue of racism or any ism in football into question. Many are happy to just turn up and kick a ball, get pictured in clubs but those who take a stand against a subject close to their heart are few and far between. Lets be honest one of the reasons that Ali will always be revered more than Jordan or Woods is because he was more than a sportsman. He spoke his mind. Told it as he saw hit, and for want of a better metaphor, didn’t pull his punches!
Rio was someone who was willing to deal with the legendary wrath of likes of Sir Alex. Was willing to sacrifice his reputation, possible fines, maybe even his team place for a bigger cause than himself. Even in light of the fact that his boss criticised Jason Roberts and he was willing to make a stand. Yes it was incredibly personal, but that’s the case for all those who refused to kowtow to being part of a campaign they had no real belief in. I respect for taking that stand.
That Sir Alex doesn’t seem to get that, like the Australian and US Olympic Committee before him, speaks volumes about the misunderstanding and sacrifice that people are willing to make in the interests of dealing with racism in football. An issue much bigger than just the player themselves. Maybe if he actually bothered to ask Rio he might realise why. Race matters. Racism may never leave the beautiful game but those who take a stand against it, like any other injustice, should be lauded not sidelined.