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Football and racism

Walking off the pitch must remain an option to beat racism in football

In Summary

• In 1936, Jesse Owens was advised not to compete in the Olympics in Germany. 

• Raheem Sterling is in favour of playing on and not letting racist supporters win. 

Raheem Sterling
Raheem Sterling
Image: REUTERS

What if Jesse Owens had followed the advice given him by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and refused to compete at the 1936 Olympic Games?.

On December 4, 1935, the organisation’s head, Walter Francis White, composed a letter to Owens stating the NAACP’s stance that he should not give credibility to the Nazi regime by participating in Berlin.

White deliberated further and the letter was never sent, but Owens, and other members of the United States Olympic team, were made very aware of the opposition to their participation.

A compromise of sorts was reached.

Owens declared: “If there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics.”

Then he went anyway, persuaded by Avery Brundage, president of the United States Olympic Committee.

History suggests it is a good thing he did.

Nothing repudiated the myth of Hitler’s Aryan master race more than the sight of an incredible black athlete winning gold medals in four events.

On the day Owens qualified for the 100metres final, another black American, Cornelius Johnson, won gold in the high jump, too.

This is the point Raheem Sterling is making about quitting the field in the face of racism.

Far better to beat the racists than to merely shame them by walking away.

Can racists be shamed anyway?

Taking the moral high ground is appealing, but more powerful, surely, to plant the winning standard there, too?

Had England’s players left the field in Montenegro their hosts would merely have dissembled and covered for the racist element in their crowd.

England would have been accused of exaggerating the problem, or making mountains from molehills.

We already know that the Montenegrin FA’s general secretary, Momir Djurdjevac, has dismissed the numbers involved as ‘three or four idiots’. Yet here is the dilemma.

What if an athlete is not as fast as Owens, or as favoured by talent and circumstance as Sterling? What if the player being abused is on the losing side? This is where the idea of victory as vindication falls down.

Sterling favours it because, most weeks, he will triumph. He plays for Manchester City, one of the strongest club teams in the world, and England, who will win many more matches than they lose. Not only is he a superior human specimen than any knuckle-dragging racist, he usually has the score-line to prove it.

So what of a player who is hated at Huddersfield; or Northampton; or Wigan? This is why we are moving ever nearer to the day a team simply turns and walks.

Black players cannot always guarantee the result will speak for them. They are not a master race, either.

They lose track events, they lose football matches. Sterling and Manchester City lost the day it was alleged he was racially abused at Chelsea.

It cannot be that black players must rise above the abuse, and also finish on the winning side, to truly advance their argument.

One gets the feeling Danny Rose would walk, without a backward glance, if provoked in this way again, but how many would he take with him in that instant? Part of the problem is that there is no consensus among black players, let alone the entire team, and no time for ad-hoc committee meetings.

Unless decisions are taken in advance — and in certain circumstances they can be, because racial abuse in some parts of the world is hardly unexpected — who makes the first call, and who can guarantee unity?

Would Sterling meekly follow Rose off if England were three goals up, with the risk the result might not stand?

Equally, if England were losing, what would happen when the action was inevitably slandered as an excuse?

Suppose little Montenegro had been beating mighty England against the odds in Podgorica that night?

We already know how any decision to withdraw from the game would have been spun.

It says everything about racism in football that the reaction of black players remains the issue, rather than the eradication of the cause.

If it seems there is more racism around than before that is because black players are now calling it out instead of accepting it comes with the territory.

As for a right way and a wrong way to react — not every athlete is Jesse Owens or Raheem Sterling.

For those not blessed with the skills or the team to articulate a response on the field of play, leaving it empty must always remain an available protest.