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8 November 2021

Why does sport remain a safe place for racism?

From anti-Semitic football chants to the scandal at Yorkshire Cricket Club, the denial and obfuscation simply has to stop.

By Michael Coren

I first wrote about racism in football in this magazine almost 40 years ago and was assured by various senior bureaucrats that they took the problem extremely seriously. Since then there have been campaigns to kick it out, with pre-match kneeling to show solidarity and sympathy, and even the odd arrest. The truth is, however, that in many ways sports are still regarded as the last “safe place” for racism. The frequency and intensity may have declined but, for a jolt of reality, recall what three young black England players were forced to suffer after the Euros.

Or imagine what an orthodox Jewish man felt a few days ago as West Ham fans on a plane to Belgium spewed anti-Semitic chants at their fellow passenger, laughed as they did so, and even had the confidence to film their hideous actions. West Ham officials say that they’re outraged and intend to take action, but nobody on the flight intervened and there was no move to stop or remove the offenders.

That incident was likely connected to a hatred of the rival football club Tottenham Hotspur, who have gained the reputation of being a Jewish team. The sociology is complex. Tottenham always had a large number of Jewish supporters because the catchment area for the club had a sizeable Jewish community. Yet until relatively recently there were no Jewish owners of the team, and over the years there has been only one Jewish manager and a handful of Jewish players.

The point of transition arrived with the 1960s television show, Till Death Us Do Part, when racist anti-hero Alf Garnett, a follower of West Ham, referred to “the Jews up at Spurs”. So popular was the comedy that the notion of Tottenham as a Jewish club became glued to the wider culture. Alf Garnett, by the way, was played by Warren Mitchell, who was Jewish and a lifelong Spurs fan.

[See also: Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism was grotesque. I should know – I saw it first hand]

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Suddenly what was beneath the surface became more visible, even acceptable. Spurs were “The Yids”, and as a Tottenham-supporting teenager I’d regularly hear West Ham and Chelsea fans chanting anti-Semitic obscenities. Chelsea, a magnet for the fascist right in the 1970s, could be particularly repugnant. They sang, “We’ve never felt more like gassing the Jews,” and during one game a number of their fans made hissing sounds – supposed to replicate the noise of Nazi gas chambers.

Tottenham fans finally took ownership of the abuse, and in a mingling of irony and defiance they self-identified as “The Yid Army”. They chant it still, but to blame the victim for turning the bully’s weapons against them is hardly appropriate. As for the thugs on the plane who publicly insulted and humiliated someone, they did it because they assumed that they could, that it was somehow acceptable.

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The sewers have to breathe, runs the argument, it’s not meant to offend, and it’s just sport. Really? Surely it’s those on the receiving end who should decide what constitutes offence. A black player watching a spectator making monkey gestures, an Irish player being called a terrorist, a Jewish player racially abused by fans of his own team. The authorities know all this, and they offer comforting words and guarantees of reform. Just as they did 40 years ago.

If we assume that this is a problem unique to football, revelations about Yorkshire Cricket Club should explode those often class-based assumptions. Azeem Rafiq, a 30-year-old former cricketer, says he was left close to suicide after encountering repeated racism at what is one of the country’s most respected teams. He spent most of his career at Yorkshire, captaining the team in 2012, but told the BBC that he dreaded “every second” of his years there due to racist belittling.

Formal complaints were made last year and investigations eventually took place. But the conclusions were hardly sufficient, and full details weren’t initially made public. Only seven of 43 allegations were upheld, the club denied institutional racism, and argued that no conduct by any of its employees, players or executives warranted “disciplinary action”.

It was then leaked that the investigation had indeed found that Rafiq was insulted because of his ethnicity, but that this was merely “friendly and good-natured banter”. Which is, I’m sure, precisely how the orthodox Jewish man felt when confronted by jovial West Ham fans just “having a laugh”.

Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan was also named in the report and is accused – although he steadfastly denies it – of saying to a group of Asian players: “Too many of you lot, we need to do something about it.” Yorkshire chairman Roger Hutton has now resigned, Nike has withdrawn as kit supplier, a number of sponsors have ended their relationship with the club, and the story continues to unfold.

Just to complete the circle, Yorkshire’s head coach Andrew Gale is being investigated by the club over an 11-year-old tweet in which he is said to have called the former media chief at Leeds United a “Yid”. Gale has said that he was “completely unaware” that the term was offensive and that it was actually a nickname for fans of Leeds. Well, that’s OK then.

The pattern is eerily predictable. Excuses, claims of ignorance, downplaying, and even criticising those who complain because sport is sport and, after all, nobody means any harm. But they do, and those they degrade know they do and feel the ugly sting. Professional sport should be a model for its myriad and multicultural fans, not a contrived exception from basic standards of decency and even legality.

Where things have improved it’s largely due to generational change, and evolved societal sensitivities, rather than to the activism of those who control and administer. As the former West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding has written of the racist insults he received: “They strip away your humanity, they take away your feelings of self-worth. You feel as though you don’t belong.” That applies to fans as well as players, and the denial and the obfuscation simply has to stop.

[See also: The inclusive patriotism of Gareth Southgate’s team taught people like me how to be England fans]

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This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks