Applauding Sancho will mean nothing unless sport effects real change

OLIVER HOLT: Applauding Jadon Sancho for protesting racism will mean nothing unless sport effects some real change… you don’t fix it with a hashtag or a black square on Instagram, you fix it with action

  • England star Jadon Sancho has led the charge in the fight against racism
  • Sancho revealed a ‘Justice for George Floyd’ protest on undershirt last weekend
  • FIFA president Gianni Infantino said Sancho should be applauded, not punished
  • It was right thing to say but will be redundant unless it is backed up with action
  • It means nothing unless sport move beyond gesture politics and effect change

In the days since the killing of George Floyd, his life casually and languorously extinguished in broad daylight on a busy Minneapolis street by a policeman with his hands in his pockets, organised sport has eagerly and swiftly embraced anti-racism as its favoured form of crisis management.

Black lives matter again suddenly for the NFL but protecting sales of Cowboys and Patriots caps in metropolitan areas matters more.

The apologetic contortions of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hit the right note but let us not be under any illusion that this is a battle for the brand.

Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho is leading the charge in the fight against racism

Goodell kept quiet when Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, was drummed out of the league, his career ruined by a cabal of NFL owners, for peacefully protesting against police brutality.

The practice of taking a knee for the national anthem was started by Kaepernick in 2016 and banned by the NFL two years later.

Goodell went full-on contrite on Friday after a group of the NFL’s most high-profile players posted a powerful video. ‘How many times do we have to ask you to listen to your players?’ they asked. ‘What will it take? For one of us to be murdered by police brutality? What if I was George Floyd? We assert our right to peacefully protest.’

Goodell’s response was that ‘we condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.’

He did not apologise to Kaepernick, though. In that sense, his words felt hollow.

For sport’s corporate behemoths, events like Blackout Tuesday — the posting of black squares on Instagram — are a kind of giant photo opportunity, less a way of salving guilt or effecting change than a means of quelling corporate panic. They provide shelter for a team or a league as it waits for the storm to pass. They deflect the issues. They do not tackle them.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell supported the Black Lives Matter movement on Friday

Goodell kept quiet when Colin Kaepernick (centre) was drummed out of the league 

Lionel Messi shoots and Tom Brady passes but sport kicks the can down the road. It talks the talk and it does it well and the problem is that we really want to believe it but sport hardly ever walks the walk.

We already had our Goodell moment on this side of the Atlantic. Last week, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said Jadon Sancho should be applauded, not punished, for revealing a ‘Justice for George Floyd’ protest on his vest during a Borussia Dortmund game. 

It was the right thing to say — the Bundesliga duly fined Sancho for getting his hair cut instead — but it means nothing unless it is backed up. It means nothing unless FIFA, UEFA and the NFL move beyond gesture politics and try to effect real change.

‘I live in a society,’ Malcolm X said in a speech to the Oxford Union more than 50 years ago, ‘which has more subtle, deceptive, deceitful methods to make the rest of the world think it’s cleaning up its house while, at the same time, the same things are happening to us in 1964 that happened in 1954, 1924 and 1894.’

There is a conflagration now but what happens next? Maybe we ask a few questions, for a start.

Like how do Arsenal reconcile sticking a black square on their Instagram page with the fact that their owner, Stan Kroenke, donates huge amounts to Donald Trump?

Sancho revealed a ‘Justice for George Floyd’ protest on his undershirt during a game

FIFA president Gianni Infantino (pictured) said Sancho should be applauded, not punished

What worth does the black screen have when the owner allies himself with a president who reacted to Kaepernick’s protest by saying: ‘Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now”.’ 

Maybe the black screen doesn’t count for an awful lot when you’ve got an owner who supports a president like that. Maybe there are better ways to show solidarity with a cause.

What happens when Blackout Tuesday fades to grey? What happens when we get back to normal?

Because we all know what normal is in terms of European football’s attitude to racism, don’t we?

Normal is Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger reporting being racially abused at Spurs last December and neither the club nor the Metropolitan Police contacting some of the supporters who rang a hotline to say they heard it. Normal is Rudiger being booed by some Spurs fans in the return fixture in February.

‘In the end, I’m the scapegoat,’ said Rudiger. ‘Racism has won.’

Normal is UEFA fining Bulgaria less for their fans’ racial abuse of England players last year than they fined former Denmark forward Nicklas Bendtner for flashing sponsored underpants at Euro 2012.

Bulgaria were fined £65,000 after fans were seen making facist gestures against England

Normal is UEFA fining Manchester City more for being a minute late for the second half in a tie against Sporting Lisbon than they fined Porto for racially abusing City players in another game.

Normal is Moise Kean playing for Juventus against Cagliari last year, suffering racist abuse and being blamed by team-mate Leonardo Bonucci for aggravating his tormentors. Normal is BBC viewers consistently voting Raheem Sterling the worst England player on the team’s run to the semi-finals at the 2018 World Cup even though he was one of our best performers.

Normal is Troy Deeney and Danny Rose being singled out for abuse last month because they said they were worried about going back to training even when figures show that men from a BAME background are more at risk from Covid-19.

You don’t fix that with a hashtag or a black square on Instagram even if it does buy you time for a little while. You don’t fix it with words or with gestures. You fix it with actions and commitment.

English football talks a good game about wanting to tackle racial abuse but the Premier League are only contributing £300,000 this year to Kick It Out, the sport’s leading anti-racism campaign.

It is not an inconsiderable sum and the organisation is grateful but, set against the billions made by the league, it is a sign of where fighting racism is in their priorities.

Troy Deeney was singled out for abuse for expressing his concerns about returning to training when figures show that men from a BAME background are more at risk from Covid-19 

You fix it by promoting more black executives to our football boardrooms. You fix it by tackling that suppurating sore of the chronic under-representation of black managers in the English game. You fix it by empowering black players to walk off the pitch when they are racially abused, without fear of sanction. You fix it with swingeing penalties for clubs whose fans are found guilty of racism, not slaps on the wrist.

You fix it by consigning to a shameful past moments like the time former UEFA president Michel Platini said, before Euro 2012, that anyone walking off the pitch to protest against racist abuse would be shown a yellow card.

And you fix it with education. Hashtags and photo opportunities are fine but the heroes I look to in this fight are people like Kick it Out’s Troy Townsend, the journalists Darren Lewis and Leon Mann, the campaigners Heather Rabbatts and Paul Elliott.

They are not about gestures. They work and they work and they work to try to make things better. They work to create more opportunities for black people in sport and to make the environment better.

They know to look beyond the panicked promises of scared executives, squares on screens and messages on T-shirts. There is no quick fix.

Joe Root says he would back Ben Stokes to take over as England skipper if he is forced to miss the first Test against the West Indies this summer because of the birth of his child. 

Stokes is not just a brilliant player, he has the universal respect of his team and is a clever reader of the game. In Root’s absence, the captaincy would be in safe hands with him. 

Joe Root (left) has backed Ben Stokes (right) to take over as England skipper if he is forced to miss the first Test against the West Indies this summer because of the birth of his child

I was given a copy of The Cemetery End as a present last week. It’s a beautiful book that is a pictorial history of 25 years of lost football grounds and stands and its innate poignancy is only heightened by the fear that the crisis the lower leagues face will multiply the stadiums abandoned if clubs are not given the financial assistance their place in our communities demands.

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