Sport’s Racial Abuse Problem and How to Stamp it Out in 2020

Picking a recent anecdote of racism in sport to begin this article is like looking at the death notices in a local paper; it’s way too sad and there’s way too many.

Monkey chants directed toward Brazilian international Fred Derby in England’s Manchester derby?

Or monkey chants aimed at Belgian international Romelu Lukaku, which were well and truly audible through the Italian league broadcast?

Cagliari fans were cleared of any wrongdoing in relation to the latter, although Serie A changed its Twitter cover photo to a picture of Lukaku. Solidarity, right?

What about when an Italian television pundit commented on Lukaku’s talent, saying “the only way to come up against him is maybe give him 10 bananas to eat…” That’s a compliment, right?

Or maybe the time Shakhtar Donetsk teammates Taison and Dentinho were reduced to tears because of ongoing racist chants directed at them during a match in Ukraine – before Taison was sent off for kicking the ball into the stands?

What about that Corriere dello Sport scandal, when the Italian newspaper published a racist front-page headline and then doubled down the next day, claiming they were being “lynched” by accusers.

Remember that time Mario Balotelli was vilified by his club president, who said, “he’s black, what can I say? He’s working on getting lighter himself but he’s having a lot of difficulty.” This was just two days after Verona fans abused Balotelli on the playing field.

The head of Verona’s active support went on radio the following day to tell listeners, “Balotelli’s Italian because he has Italian citizenship, but he can never be completely Italian. We also have a n***o in the team who scored yesterday, and we all applauded him.”

There’s also the time Juventus star Moise Kean was racially abused after scoring, only to be thrown under the bus by his captain who remarked post-match, “I think the blame is 50-50. Moise should not have done that, and the [supporters] should not have reacted that way.”

All of these incidents took place in 2019, all but one in a three-month span between September and November.

European football isn’t alone. Numerous cases of racism in sport have been identified across major and minor leagues in the United States, and you only have to catch five minutes of Ian Darling’s The Final Quarter to remember the deep roots of discrimination in Australian sport.

So how do sporting leagues and organisations combat the racism that’s taken centre stage around the world?

A good place to start is by analysing the Italian Football Federation’s (FIGC) actions in Italy’s Serie A – and then do the opposite.

Scandals are nothing new in Italian football. The sport is so entrenched in Italian society that it often reflects the culture’s prideful tendency to place a blanket over deep-seated issues.

One such issue is fascism, an ideology that has lingered in the public courts of Italian society since Benito Mussolini.

The Brothers of Italy have direct lineage to Mussolini and his Fascist party, Northern League party leader and potential prime minister Matteo Salvini channels the Italian dictator in his seductive brand of far-right populism, while Silvio Berlusconi was the poster-boy for modern fascism during his time as a prime minister and media magnate in the 1990s and 2000s.

It’s important to note the rise of right-wing populism in Italy has allowed fascist sentiments of race discrimination and nationalism to infiltrate the national sport.

Any arena is a dangerous breeding ground for hate. An emotion-charged atmosphere, mob mentality and the sheer magnitude of people conspire to present a nightmare for authorities.

Picture this, a black player has been fouled and is laying on the ground in pain in front of some opposing hard-line fans A.K.A ‘ultras’. They call him soft, weak and lazy.

One crowd member – emboldened by the atmosphere and surrounding fans – goes a step further and says that all black players are soft, and starts making gorilla noises. Another chimes in with similar chants.

But do those who identify this go against the ‘in-crowd’ and shut down these chants? Rarely. Our natural desire to be a part of this in-crowd inhibits our ability to make correct decisions.

In fact, studies show that those with tentative opinions become more extreme when hearing others who hold the same beliefs.

Therefore, fans with an anti-immigration or nationalist lean – perhaps due to absorbing ideology-laden papers and Berlusconi-owned networks for years – are encouraged by their peers in the stands of a Serie A match and subsequently join in.

With little accountability in such a populated space, the arena becomes an outlet for hate. Specifically, a hate that many participants can’t even identify within themselves.

Surely this is where the FIGC should step in with a no-tolerance policy.

Unfortunately, the federation falls well short. Suspended sentences, petty fines and a lack of commitment to stamping out the issue has only reassured racists that there are no punishments for their actions, thus creating an awful six months of unabating xenophobia with no genuine counter-action.

It would lead the chief of anti-discrimination organisation Fare Network to say in September, “we believe the Italian authorities and the disciplinary system is simply not fit for purpose.

“Whether the FIGC or Serie A, they have failed to protect countless players from racism over the past year and have no meaningful response to the endemic racism in stadiums.

“There are no visible campaigns, no progressive fan leaders, as well as apathy and prejudice among the media.”

The FIGC’s response? An anti-racism campaign centred around artworks of monkeys…of different races?

Silence by a sporting body in the face of racism isn’t just Italy’s problem, but Australia’s too.

The AFL remained quiet on the racism that plagued Adam Goodes’ final years in the league. CEO Gillon McLachlan hesitated on multiple occasions to label the consistent booing against the two-time Brownlow Medallist as racist.

A recent apology from the league did little to repair the fractures that destroyed a footballing legend’s love for the game and his desire to be around AFL circles for the rest of his life.

Entrenched racism toward our Indigenous people is to Australia what fascism is to Italy.

The White Australia Policy and the Stolen Generation is decent evidence of this. However, identifying the root of a cause does little without practices in place to eradicate the issue.

Any concession to racism equates to sympathy. Just because sporting arenas are an easy target of racist abuse does not make the abuse any less venomous.

If a supermarket patron begins a racist tirade against a fellow shopper, that person would be banned from the supermarket and reported to police.

The same no-tolerance policy must happen in sport, and in the face of the FIGC’s incapability, Italian clubs like Roma and A.C. Milan have started doing so.

Ultimately, authorities must realise that their inaction promotes the vitriol and must take command in bringing about a world where racial abuse in arenas is no longer accepted nor the norm.

After all, in 2020 is that too much to ask for?

Image by Jarrod Pettit