Humans suffer from a tribalistic compulsion to divide others into groups. The idea of “us versus them” is incredibly pervasive across multiple cultures, and the divides that sports can bring often intensifies this. While it is a good thing that sports offer a greater sense of community, the benefit is sometimes outweighed by intensifying the sense of tribalism, which leads to vitriolic actions like racism.
This environment came to a flashbang during the Orioles game against the Boston Red Sox on Monday, May 5. Boston fans allegedly hurled racial epithets and threw peanuts at Orioles center fielder Adam Jones. These attacks came from a minority of fans, the majority of whom were ejected during the game. Most Red Sox fans gave Adam Johnson a standing ovation during the next game at historic Fenway Park, showing that the problem is clearly not a universal one.
On the other hand, this is not enigmatic. As far back as half a decade ago, Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell described Boston as “a flea market of racism” and described a culture where he suffered for his background and not simply for sports reasons. Unfortunately, these problems transcend Boston. Jackie Robinson was not the first example of the ubiquity of racism in American sports, and he certainly would not be the last.
In fact, racism in sports exceeds United States boundaries. Soccer, despite how much positivity it represents around the globe, has had numerous racial incidents occur around the globe. French star Thierry Henry faced so much racial abuse during his time playing in Spain that he became a major figurehead for the Kick It Out organization, established in 1993 to remove racism from soccer.
However, despite decade long efforts, racism is still alive and well in the soccer world. On April 30, during a match in the Italian Serie A, Ghanaian player Sulley Muntari walked off the field after receiving racial epithets from a family in the crowd. The referee did nothing and the Italian soccer federation has yet to do anything to react to the incident.
The situation is even worse in Eastern Europe, where soccer is intrinsically linked with politics, both of which are very corrupt. The Serbian league has a multitude of racially charged incidents every year, and there is no conclusive solution for any of it.
All of this begs the question of what can be done? First off, there is a huge issue of accountability that needs to be discussed. Are the Red Sox as an organization responsible for the actions of a few fans? It is hard to condemn the organization for standing out against it, but it is also a franchise with a history of incidents like this. Is it up to players to recognize that it is happening, and like Muntari, walk off as a show of protest? Should players who are not the target of these incidents walk off as a show of solidarity?
The answer is difficult, but it is up to the whole community. Russell’s negative experiences in Boston were not only on the court. Within the greater Boston area he was disenfranchised by shop owners, realtors and more. The simple fact is that racism happens in our communities, and we must all stand up against it.
Simply speaking out against it is not enough, it is the responsibility of the community to create an environment where racism cannot thrive. We all have to support organizations like Kick It Out, we all have to seek consequences for those who would shout racial epithets and we all have to make our voices heard.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When we allow racism and “otherism” to exist by not speaking out against it, we all lose. When we allow it to bleed out into our sports and other activities, we are taking great community building activities and we are defiling them and that is a travesty.