I first heard about this when France's Thierry Henry, arguably one of the best soccer players in the world, got international accolades for talking Nike into bank-rolling a Stand Up/Speak Up campaign against rampant racism at the matches. But I was totally unprepared for the recent rash of news media discussions about the extent and boldness of the activities--still common--that made the campaign necessary.
It's World Cup time, from what I can gather. God knows I'm not tuned into or turned on by sports of any kind really, but the competition began last Friday and will continue until July 9th, with matches in multiple European countries featuring the best "footballers" in the world (including some from the U.S.). The reason I know this information is that I have actually read a couple of lengthy pieces on it, but you know by now, of course, that if I'm writing about it, the subject is not sports--it's race.
Apparently, soccer (called "football" outside the U.S., hence the reference to "footballers" above) has a history of drawing hyper-emotional fans (remember the bloody free-for-alls they finally had to crack down on a couple of decades ago in England?). Well, the powers-that-be finally got the fisticuffs under control more or less, but over the past couple of years, they've begun to admit that there's another little problem they probably should deal with. Racist groups and individuals make the matches hellish for footballers of color. Simon Kuper, a British sports columnist, says "It was seen as all good fun and part of football culture and accepted for a long time." Hmmm. Let's take a look at the good fun he's talking about.
Thousands of fans screaming monkey noises and throwing bananas onto the field when a Black player is trying to make a kick. Entire groups unfurling pro-Hitler banners, complete with swastikas, and using intricate choreography to form human swastikas or even the face of Der Fuhrer in the stands. Teaming up to spit on Black players. Sounds like a barrel of laughs to me. And keep in mind: we're not talking about occasional instances here or certain countries or a few particular people. We're talking about routine attacks.
"In a stadium of 60,000, it's easy to be anonymous," says Jerome Champagne of the Federation Internationale de Football Association. But I've seen photos of young men being allowed to hang a big swastika banner by the fans seated behind them--and their faces in full view. What's up with that? Champagne knows. "The main issue," he goes on, "is not racism within soccer, but racism around soccer." No lie.
So the footballers organize in groups with names like "Kick It Out" (in Britain) and the "Never Again Association" (in Poland), both part of a network called Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE). And there are fans--such as those who formed "Arsenal Against Racism"--who have joined them. Thierry's Stand Up/Speak Up campaign sold four and one-half million black and white wrist bands, raising five million Euros (more than six million dollars!) for anti-racist projects in eleven countries.
Nevertheless, Kuper tells us: "You can still hear people say, 'Oh, it's all good fun." Being spit on is good fun? Hitler is good fun? Gee, and all this time, I liked reading. Just look what I've been missing!
My point is that the Hitler youth and the spitters may represent a relatively small group, comparatively speaking. But they're not the ones calling it fun. They're not doing it for fun. They're doing it to spread an agenda of racist hatred. I understand them. They're sick and, if they're allowed to, they will bring us to mayhem, at least, and destruction, if they can. But the ones that scare me are the "ordinary" people who call it "fun." Would they laugh at being spit on or called an animal? Would they find these situations "fun" if they were happening to their children? Of course not. So what is their agenda?
We still have Nazi's in the U.S. They leaflet campuses on a regular basis in this country. But overall, many European-Americans purport to believe that all that bold and ugly racist stuff is behind us. They might watch the craziness at the soccer matches and pat themselves on the back as being from a nation where that isn't currently happening. But most of them still wink at racist jokes, look away from racist activities in the work place, and would not consider seeing themselves as allies of people of color. So they are probably not much different, in the end, from the Europeans (who look like them) and ignore the "fun" while people of color continue to have their spirits lynched in the name of a sport.