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Black Lives Matter: A year of athletic protest

December 29, 2020

It has been a seismic year for sport, and no more so in athletes raising their voice in the fight for racial equality. Events in Germany have shown that, while progress has been made, there is much work to be done.

Borussia Mönchengladbach  1. FC Union Berlin Marcus Thuram
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Meissner

Seven months on from displays of solidarity in the Bundesliga, Hertha Berlin's Jordan Torunarigha posted a picture on his Instagram account.

It showed a message full of racist abuse he had been sent after Hertha's derby win against Union. It was the second time in a year that the 23-year-old had been subjected to such abuse. It begs the question, for all the apparent progress this year, how far have we really come?

At the end of 2020, a Champions League game between PSG and Basaksehir was abandoned after fourth official Sebastian Coltescu used racial language to identify Basaksehir assistant coach Pierre Webo. There was widespread support for the decision of the players to walk off, forcing the issue onto UEFA. Such moves are not only important but necessary.

The time to do more is now because, if this year has shown anything, it's that the time for hashtags, fines, statements supporting a fair game has passed.

Athletes take control

Even before support for the Black Lives Matter movement surged across Europe in May, German football revealed in one month just how much work was still to be done.

In February, the outcry over abuse directed at Hoffenheim benefactor and owner Dietmar Hopp outweighed the level of stuctural protection and sympathy afforded to players such as Torunarigha and Leroy Kwadwo, who were both racially abused during games. In the case of Kwadwo, audible support immediately came from fans in the stadium, but the organizational structures of football itself continue to let Black players down.

Blame it on the lack of diversity at the executive level of the sport (particularly true in Germany), blame it on fundamental issues stretching deep into the fabric of society, but the inaction of sport's governing bodies renders their endless stream of positive words increasingly hollow.

That's what made the symbolic gestures of support from several players in May so important. Weston McKennie wearing an armband with words of support, Marcus Thuram kneeling and raising a fist in silent solidarity after scoring, and both Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi revealing messages calling for justice on their undershirts. They all matter. They remind us and league regulators that not only are players people too, but that they also have the power to add more energy to a movement.

Social movements have often found vocal leaders in sport. From Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to Naomi Osaka, Colin Kaepernick and Raheem Sterling, the fight against racial injustice has long been present in the sporting arena. Today, athletes' voices carry further, and for longer, thanks to the endless web of the digital world.

Formel 1 | Grand Prix Bahrain | Hamilton gewinnt
Image: Hamad I Mohammed/REUTERS

Lewis Hamilton started and led the conversation about equality and diversity in the predominately white sport of Formula One. He did it on the track by changing the color of his car to all black and by kneeling before every race, and then he continued to reiterate his beliefs and feelings to his 21 million Instagram followers.

It was a reminder that in the modern era, athletes no longer need the media to send a message. They can do it themselves.

And this year that was very much the case. From kneeling before games to jerseys with player names replaced by the words Black Lives Matter, it was evident that this time the protest was different, bigger, more prominent. Athletes took control in choosing how and when they wanted to send their message, and carried it out.

Whether this was on the field, on the court or on social media, their choice, their agency, mattered.

Real world change

Social-media initiatives are important, but tangible, real-life action must follow. As Bayern Munich's Jerome Boateng told DW: "Initiatives like Black Out Tuesday are all well and good, but what we really need is to really get stuck in and do something."

Yet, despite all the warnings, all the gestures, all the promises, all that positive energy in the summer, we are not as far along as we should be. In Germany, after the kneeling had ended, allegations that a Bayern Munich academy coach had used racial slurs in a WhatsApp group prompted an investigation.

On a nationally broadcast weekly football television show, former Germany international Steffen Freund inexplicably suggested that the North African heritage of Schalke players Amine Harit and Nabil Bentaleb could explain their characteristics and attitude.

Just days before the PSG and Basaksehir players had walked off the pitch during their Champions League game, seemingly marking a major shift in attitude, supporters in England's second division had audibly jeered players taking a knee. It just keeps happening.

Racially motivated violence against Black people around the world is as much an issue as it was decades ago. In some countries that violence is more physical than in others, but the violence of everyday racism is sadly familiar to all of us.

The fight continues

"It's taken my father's time, my mother's time, my uncle's time, my brothers' and my sisters' time, my nieces and my nephew's time," said James Baldwin in his 1989 biography "The Price of the Ticket," referring to the fight against racism in the United States. "How much time do you want for your progress?"

Time keeps passing by and the fight still continues, because it has to continue, including in sport. Great progress has been made over the last 30 years, but we have reached a point where incremental progress is not enough.

What we need is tangible change. We need more education about colonialism. We need a willingness to explore white privilege. We need to recognize and accept the facts, even when that means acknowledging uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

In 2020, many athletes have shown that they are not only prepared for battle; they are already in the midst of it. The question is, will they get the support they need?

Or will they be left alone to fight the hate messages, the discriminatory language, the human evil that is racism?