In the recent week we’ve seen two racist incidents in sport that there is no excuse for. On Sunday, a spectator threw a banana at Barca’s player Dani Alvez while he was about to take a corner. Alves’ response couldn’t have been better – he picked the banana up, peeled and ate it before kicking the ball. Shortly after the banana incident, Alves launched a cross that Mateo Musacchio headed into his own goal in the 78th minute before Lionel Messi scored Barcelona’s winning goal. Alves, whose crosses caused two own goals as Barcelona came from two goals down to win 3-2 over Villarreal, even thanked the guy who had thrown the banana: “I don’t know who it was, but thanks to whoever threw the banana, the potassium gave me the energy for the two crosses which led to a goal”. “We have suffered this in Spain for some time,” Alves further said. “You have to take it with a dose of humor. We aren’t going to change things easily.
Alves has been subjected to racist taunts before – for example Real Madrid’s fans abused him with monkey chants during a match. He called racism a lost war. “I’ve been living in Spain for 11 years, and for 11 years I’ve been laughing at these morons.” The story went viral – a lot of football stars took photos of themselves eating a banana, Dilma Rousseff and Sepp Blatter expressed their outrage as well and a huge number of people have joint in the ‘spontaneous’ capaign against racism. Social media has been overflown by hashtags such as #WeAreAllMonkeys .
Alves’ action proved that racism is still a big problem in football. Although we like to think that the situation is improving, especially because of all the official campaigns against racism, the ‘banana case’ showed that some people are still completely ignorant, discriminatory and primitive (I am sure all the monkeys on this world are on higher intellectual and emphatical level than the guy who threw the banana) and that rival matches can fuel racist behaviour. Alves’ case not only mirrored the existing problem, but also sparked global debate and outrage about racism. As Tom Conn, a Spanish football fan, tweeted: “In one single action, Dani Alves did more to fight racism than any UEFA/FIFA ‘Say No to Racism’ has ever done”.
Another incident this week was caused by Donald Sterling, the longtime owner of the Clippers.On April 25, 2014, TMZ Sports released a recording of a conversation between Sterling and V. Stiviano, in which he tells his girlfriend that she shouldn’t post pictures of black people (including Magic Johnson) on her Instagram account. He also tells her that he’s not racist because he takes care of the guys on the Clippers’ roster. The transript (via Slate):
Stiviano: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?
Sterling: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?
I really like how John Stewart explained it (gotta love the Daily Show): “He’s a billionaire who’s gotten rich off the labors of a mostly black basketball team, telling his mixed-race girlfriend not to be seen with black people. It’s that age-old story, ‘Yea, I’m racist, but my dick and my wallet are not.'”
As the Slate article says, Donald Sterling exposes an uncomfortable truth about race and power in pro basketball. The recording doesn’t only reveal racist relations in the NBA, but also the way players are owned by the club owners, how they sell their skills as a commodity and how they are treated no better than an ‘input’ in the whole sports production process. Donald Sterling doesn’t (didn’t) just own a basketball team – he owns/owned the black players who suit up for that team, too. “For the men who control the NBA, great basketball players are another kind of expensive toy—superyachts that can dunk. It’s impossible to ignore that pro basketball is a business in which most of the employees are black and the vast majority of the owners are white. A whole lot of NBA players are incredibly rich, and a bunch of them are cultural icons. But like Sterling says, it’s the super-duper-rich guys who control the league while the players provide the entertainment. When an NBA owner tells his players to jump, the guys in sneakers are contractually obligated to ask how high.” (Slate).
The Clippers players expressed their outrage and intolerane of Donald Sterling, as well as the global public – like in the case of Alves, social media went crazy. Yesterday, the NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the punishment: Sterling was givern $2.5 million fine and was banned for life from any association with the NBA. The sanctions are the most punitive available to the NBA under its unpublished constitution. They were welcomed across the world, but especially by prominent players, “some of whom had characterised the issue as a defining moment for the league, 70% of whose players are black but whose team owners are overwhelmingly white” (The Guardian).
Although both cases were resolved successfully, the problem of racism in sport is far from being eradicated. As the New Yorker’s Ben Greenman wrote on Twitter, “It’s not just Donald Sterling’s ignorance that’s the problem. It’s the decades that ignorance has been tolerated because of wealth.” Both in football and basketball, racism is a product of different historical forces and inequalities, ignorance of the fans and unequal power relations. Such scandals are on one hand good since they encourage the global awakening and acknowledgment of the problem. However, more structural and systematic approaches are needed to kick racism out of the sports arena – including education, fairer distribution of wealth, stricter punishments, promotion of inter-racial understanding and interaction etc. Sadly, racism is still bigger than football and basketball together – it’s high time to truly ‘show racism the red card’ and hopefully the two cases will help inrease the global awareness and enourage systematic approach to tackle racism – not just in sport, but everywhere.