Sport, prejudice and social mediaPosted on

Social media was abuzz this week with two sports stories which showed (rightly or wrongly) the profound influence that sport has on society’s view on prejudice and equality.

First, this side of the Atlantic, African-American comedian Reginald D Hunter, a comic who has consistently mixed shock and satire to both entertain and make his own political points, was invited to do a set at the Professional Footballers Association awards ceremony at Grosvenor House, London. Hunter’s liberal use of the “n word” shocked many. It shouldn’t have done. Hunter’s routine regularly uses this language to enforce his points whilst (deliberately) leaving his audiences uncomfortably entertained.

Nothing was new about Hunter’s act other than the fact it was at the PFA awards. Hunter, as a comedian, seeks to satirise. Any comedian booked to compere an industry awards ceremony will mock and make light of the industry he/she is in front of. The difference is, football is an industry which has such scrutiny, that this was not an opportunity for everyone in the game to have a laugh at themselves over a drink. This was a media focused, televised showpiece and the jokes delivered gave the impression to some that the player’s union does not consider the issues of the previous 12 months to be a serious matter.

Reginald D Hunter was not suggesting that racism is not a problem in British society. He was not suggesting that the issues raised within the game were not serious. He was trying to make people laugh.

There is a much wider problem within our society. Casual racism (or indeed homophobia, sexism or other prejudices) was something which was rather more whispered 10 years ago. The advent of social media has seen a rise, not in prejudice, but in vocalisation of prejudice. An experiment which I don’t recommend – go to Twitter and type in words of hatred and prejudice. The results are depressing. There are many who anonymously (or pseudo anonymously or not even anonymously at all) are prepared to promulgate words of hatred and discrimination online.

Sport has the power and reach to help influence against such common use of hateful language and prejudice. This week’s public “coming out” of NBA star Jason Collins was just such a positive move. Collins declared “I’m a 34 year old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay” challenging many perceived stereotypes. Alongside the NFL the NBA perhaps has the biggest influence on how American kids think and act. A Twitter search for Collins does bring up some ridicule and hatred but the level of support, particularly from Collins’ colleagues such as Kobe Bryant, has been heartfelt and moving.

A person’s sexual preference is a private matter. No-one should be expected to “announce” that they are gay (and of course no-one should have to hide it either) but Collins’ decision to make this public statement may yet be another landmark moment of sport’s positive influence to stand alongside the conduct of previous trailblazers like Billie Jean King, Martina Navaratilova, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Jesse Owens, Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, Brendan Batson, Viv Anderson, John Barnes and the long line of sports men and women who, through their sporting brilliance and mental strength, have pushed forward the fight for equality of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

The comments of former NBA star John Amaechi (who is also gay) were interesting. Amaechi says that he has advised a number of Premier League football players who are gay and, whilst they don’t feel the need to hide the fact from their teammates, have hesitated from making it widely known. The flood of support from former teammates for US soccer player Robbie Rogers (who also announced that he is gay this year) showed a reassuring level of maturity and sophistication from players (both in the UK, where Rogers had played, and the US). It would seem that it is not the dressing room that is the problem but the wider football world.

If a high profile Premier League player “comes out” the media interest will be huge. Social media will no doubt light up with overwhelming support but also no little hatred and prejudice and the views of the vocal minority on the terraces would be hurtful and shameful. Only today the Manchester United fanzine Red Issue, a publication which has brought such a great club into disrepute before, Tweeted a number of comments which mocked Aston Villa FC’s support for its captain Stiliyan Petrov. A 33 year old man, with a wife and two children, who is battling leukemia.

Those who shout loud, no matter how moronic and hurtful, will be heard. The fact that Collins has shouted so loud and proud can only help in the fight against prejudice.

Sportsmen and women do not have to act as role models anywhere but on the field of play. When they choose to make public statements, like Collins has done, it goes above and beyond what should be expected of them – and should be applauded.

It is unfortunate that the extreme scrutiny on football and the media’s demand that the sport sets an example means that the highly political comedy of Reginald D Hunter has unwittingly acted as another “controversy” which damages the perception of football’s approach to equality. Football has done a huge amount for race relations in this country, and there is no doubt that there is much more it can do, but it is unfair that there is a public perception in some quarters that football has a problem with prejudice. Society has a problem with prejudice. Rightly or wrongly football can, and often does, have a positive, role to play in dealing with that problem.



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