October 1, 2020

Not  a time to swing low…

FIFA, Bruno Fernandes, Transfer

(Thoughts on Racism And Discrimination In Sports)

By Mitchell Obi

We can no longer pretend.. We can not continue to live a lie. We cant even,  like the burgeoning three time tennis grand slam winner Naomi Osaka , indulge in wearing masks to remind us of the victims of an  intolerable act gradually soaked in a culture of false supremacy.

Indeed the mask is off and our conscience bleeds like an open wound.

Today I  say hats up to the AIPS family for the courage in tearing open the overflogged subject of racism and discrimination in sports. In the past the  rhetorics, slogans and symbols of protests have been loud and pitiably episodic.

But today, all around us. In the streets,  In the stadia. In the stands, on the courts, along the  corridors leading to the locker rooms and right there in our hearts and conscience racism’ a dirty word, stares us  like  a broken mirror in the sun.

It is time for us all as journalists to tell the truth and only the truth can heal the open wound of our conscience.

In this brief intervention  I will not attempt to be descriptive or paint the picture of the despicable  shades of racism and discrimination that persist in muddying the waters of our beloved spectacle , sports.. Examples abound and they are not  limited to the monkey cries and allusions nor  banana images in the staduim, nor the headlines from the newsrooms that capture the ugliness of black in fine print nor the constant  sexualisation of  talented women in sports, nor the cosmetic phrases of sports leaders , coaches, players and fans both off and on the social media who hide under the cloak of tokenist gestures to promote a ghost culture that should long have been buried.

The new awakening and revisionist tendencies to check this unwholesome menace all provoke  us to do something now and fast.

Here, I will limit my take on what we need to do to make our sports free from this virus of racism and discrimination.

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Sports is highly sensitive to racism and discrimination and those in the past  and present who have dared to abuse the spirit and ethos of olympism which abhors hate of any kind , even innocently, have found space in disgrace.- No hiding place for them in God’s earth.

Howard Cosell., the great American Sportscaster , author of ‘l Never Played The Game’ and  a true and sincere friend of the immortal Muhammed Ali will never forget how a naively excited remark of….”That little monkey gets loose , doesn’t he” on a black player , almost ruined his entire broadcast  reputation despite his innocent protestation.

Pertinently though those who have used the vehicle of sports to promote justice and racial equality have found the abiding grace of a loving humanity. A Nelson Mandela wearing the jersey  of the Springbok captain Francois  Pienaar in the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup stays as an evergreen and touching  reminder of the power of sports to change the world and adjust a  society with a century old chronicle of racial divisions.

Not to forget. It is  almost four years now that the dispensation of Gianni Infantino as FIFA president  opted to scrap a Task Force on Racism and Discrimination which included  as members not only our good afrocentric AIPS President Gianni Merlo  but also my irrepressible colleague and brother Osasu Obayiuwana who insist at every opportunity on   the  power of the global body to go beyond rhetoric and  symbolism and act decisively on a  cancerous issue that has sickened the game  for decades.

Notably, the  Task Force ‘s short-lived crusade  which elicited strong words of condemnation and disappointment from such celebrated players as   Cote d’Ivoire’s Yaya Toure and France’s  Lilian Thuram still had a clear and commendable  two pronged  direction on how to tackle this menace.

Their  belief and consensus  then , obviously shared today by  many,  remain that FIFA, as a leading global sports organisation,  has the clout  to  do more in terms of initiating and adopting a blueprint that should carry stiff sanctions for racist acts at all levels  as well as a well padded enlightenment program that is as vigorous and robust  as its Covid 19 campaign or should we add Infantino’s  anti-corruption shuttles that seek to ‘:”change ignorant attitudes and mind-set of those with prejudice”.

Time is running fast for FIFA to boldly show its face in this fight even as one is encouraged by the body’s  unyielding drive to lift the women’s game and draw it close to the impressionable level which many perceive the symbolic leadership of its secretariat by an african lady.

Yes, the women are gingerly and deliberately having  a voice even if not loud as it should be at both the global, continental and national sphere of the game. But as some will argue fervently  women in sports should be appreciated and judged by their talent and performance and definitely not by  their sexuality.  Hopefully as the guardian of the beautiful game FIFA and its leadership  should  strive to  watch well its posturings and conduct in matters that easily elicit conversations  on racism and discrimination.

Only last week a petition was being put together  by some  african sports  journalists and soccer afficionadoes  to protest the disregard, disdain and marginalisation of their kind during  the question and answer session of the virtual assembly press briefing of the FIFA boss. From the petition it was clear that this discriminating   act did not go down well just as it brought back disturbing  echoes of FIFA’s six month command and control of the  63-year- old  CAF.

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No doubt , at a time when the world is frustrated with the casualities and calamity of an unpredictable virus, I sincerely  think the FIFA president  like other prominent leaders of sports and society have a responsibility to send out an unequivocal message that they wont stand for racism, discrimination and hate on any front. The message must  also be consistent.

But our concern here  is not only about football..The african sports media is yet to find any fitting response and understanding as to the perplexing  prolonged detention of more than two years  in France of an 87- year- old african sports leader before his trial and latest conviction under a Covid- 19 climate.. To think that a racist slant has been slapped on the case in  reactions  to the conviction which has obviously been  appealed at  does not stop the comparison with other  sports leaders of the same scale  who are yet to face trial five years after charges of  corruption.

Different strokes and different folks..It all sums up.

But which way to go to finally beat this racist trap and discrimination.

In the wider society it is difficult to feel the pulse of a deliberate effort to check this growing malaise. From the corporate to the government fold one waits in vain for any concerted effort to make life thoroughly uncomfortable for those with zero respect for humanity.

Nonetheless, in the sporting sphere,  I will attempt  solutioning with two considerations  that have caught my fancy of late.

The first is from the former governor of California and a professional bodybuilder, the Austrian American Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Typically from the heart he says..”.I’ve learned a long time ago that the only way we can really eliminate hatred is to face it head on. It is not always comfortable ofcourse but stereotypes about racism, religion, gender or anything else, they are like cancer. If you had a tumor , you wouldn’t quietly hope that it slowly disappears.You will zap the stuff out of it with chemotherapy, cut it out , and try every experimental treatment until it is gone. This is no different. It is a difficult time for our country but I know if we have the courage to do something about it,to do the right thing we will come out stronger in the end. “.

The second reflection   is from one nursed and groomed in the  tradition, environment and struggle in the fight against racism and its antecedent,  slavery. Who will forget Leopold Sedar Senghor, former president of Senegal and leader of the Negritude movement of the sixties and seventies which finds  an echo  today with the Black Lives Matter.

Here though is  another Senghor,   the president of Senegal’s Football Federation and Mayor of the historic Island of Goree. Augustin Senghor in a brilliant repost to a comment by Monsieur Noel Le  Graet, the president of the French Football Federation, had this food for thought.. ” As embarrassing as the problem of racism in stadiums may be for the leaders that we are, we must not resort to nihilistic exorcism to remedy it.

Racism in stadiums should not be trivialized or minimized either as an isolated fact, an epiphenomenon or a necessary evil just to “save this beautiful spectacle” which is Sport or Football.

The remedy by de-dramatization will be just as ineffective as a simple anesthesia has never healed an injury (for the victim of the racist) or illness (for the racist).  I remain convinced that if we put the same energy and the same rigor in finding the solution to these facts of racism (after having accepted the existence of them) as those which made it possible to create the VAR to track down certain gambling facts which , formerly, escaped the referees and match officials, racism would not be reduced to the rate of 1% idealized by Mr. Le Graet; it would simply disappear from our stadiums.”

We can no longer wait to sing the redemption song. Even as we chant Black Lives Matter let us as Africans also assiduously  strive and seek to respect ourselves in deed and in need.  That way others will respect us and we can change the chant to All Lives Matter.  Definitely not a time to swing low..the action chariot must swing on.  Thank you.


Abuja, September 28..2020.