March 31, 2001

slide shows

 Search the Internet
 Other sports sites

E-Mail this report to a friend

Print this page

The colour in sport

Rohit Brijnath

When Sourav Ganguly raised his finger to a section of the crowd, I was appalled. It was not new; it was also still not acceptable.

Curious, I asked an Indian team player the need for that gesture, and he remarked that that particular group of spectators had been abusive all match (we shall have to take his word for that, though it must be said that in Bombay, at least, visiting spectators were treated terribly by the crowd around them, even stoned on occasion, I was told).

What did they say, I queried? Among other things, he said, they yelled "black bastards".

(It still does not absolve Ganguly, for I expect an Indian captain to be dignified not reactive. A crowd is always scattered with silly elements, to pay them heed is to fall into their trap.)

But I can also understand his anger. Not at the 'bastard', for in the heat of excitement spectators lose their heads and thus their grip on vocabulary. It is the 'black' I object to.

What's race got to do with it?

It may have been just one voice, maybe more, but it tells us that even in sport too much comes down to colour, that in this 21st century in which men should know better, and geographical boundaries of all types are breaking down (a New Zealander coaches India, remember), race still stalks too many playing fields. Want to put a man down, show your contempt, then suggest he is inferior by virtue of pigmentation.

Some writers and administrators, disparaging in their manner, are guilty of this --- they may not intend to be racist, and swear they are not, but sometimes discrimination comes too easily, without a second thought. For sure, we can be too sensitive, but so too can they be callous.

The Williams family A few days ago I read in the newspaper about Richard Williams (father of Venus and Serena) claiming that he was victim of racist abuse at a tournament in California. He said fans even spoke of skinning him alive, and called him 'nigger'.

Williams is a man with an active imagination and prone to overstatement. So his comment that "It's the worst act of prejudice I've seen since they killed Martin Luther King" must be judged in that context. It does not however make the incident any less disturbing.

It bothered me so much that I went to my library and picked up what must be one of my favourite books. It is aptly titled Days of Grace because it is the autobiography of that wonderfully, dignified man Arthur Ashe.

Often I lie back and read it again, a paragraph here, a chapter there. So I did so, again, but turned to one particular chapter. In it, Ashe describes the time he had AIDS and a reporter from People magazine had come to see him. As she was leaving, she told him, this (the AIDS) must be the heaviest burden you have to face. Ashe said no, and she, the reporter, was astonished.

Then Ashe continued: "You're not going to believe this but being black is the greatest burden I've ever had to bear."

Ashe, who was not allowed to play most junior tournaments in Virginia by virtue of his colour, wrote much later, "By this time I was on my way to becoming a master at the game all African Americans must learn if they wish to preserve their sanity: how to live with reasonable freedom and dignity yet also avoid insult, disappointment and conflict rooted in racism."

Muhammad Ali Muhammad Ali was mocked too, mostly by the great white writers of his time. They liked Joe Louis, the humble Negro; but Ali was hard to stomach, wearing his race on his sleeve proudly and loudly. Earlier, when Jack Johnson fought, it was worse, the very term 'Great White Hope' (to find a white man to beat Johnson) suggested having a black man as champion was unpalatable.

In most sports it was the same: in the early part of the century, golf’s PGA tour had a 'Caucasians-only' clause in their rulebook and it remained there for long.

Much has altered since, but not enough. Racism still stalks sport, sometimes openly, sometimes subtly.

It's tragic, that in 1990, in America, in a time and country of awareness, it was discovered that Shoal Creek, the site of the PGA Championships (one of golf's four major tournaments), did not allow black members and didn't care either. When sponsors threatened to withdraw and so did the Championships, they admitted a black member.

Clubs with such exclusionary policies don't count anymore, certainly not in a time of Tiger Woods (though, of course, Fuzzy Zoeller's statement to Woods about ordering "collard beans or whatever it is you all eat" suggests stereotypes prevail even among the educated). But it strikes you doesn't it: till the discriminating golf clubs were banned, nothing happened, no one cared, everyone played. What were the great players, who thunder on about tradition, doing? What, golf clubs that didn't allow black members was an acceptable tradition?

All men speak out after the moment; but sometimes in life, and thus in sport, some men create the moment by speaking out first.

I find all this troubling. I find that the fact that some European soccer clubs are almost institutionalised in their racist attitudes, appalling. Fans unfurl terribly insulting banners, throw bananas on the pitch, yell epithets like 'monkey' at black players, and rival players do it too. But when last did you hear of a player being banned, or spectators thrown out, because of this.

Arthur Ashe Tennis hasn't seen much of it because there haven't been enough black players. But give it time. As Ashe wrote, "I am also alert to the phenomenon that I call racial 'tipping'. In many white circles blacks are acceptable as an element only if they comprise a certain small percentage of the people involved."

That may not be what occurred with the Williams sisters, though they are leading black players in a predominantly white sport, but it's worth a thought. What grates though is the reality that even if the fans were upset with the Williams sisters when Venus pulled out of a match against Serena, if their first reaction involved a racist epithet then it suggests such attitudes rest too close to the surface. There's a world of difference between 'spoilsport' and 'nigger spoilsport'.

The issue is, will it be investigated, or the incident merely passed off as the ramblings of a confused tennis father.

Hingis perhaps provides the silliest perspective, as usual, when she says: "I think it's total nonsense. I don't feel like there is any racism on the tour. It's a very international sport, and I even would say because they may be black, they have a lot of advantages... . They can always say it's racism."

Yes, it can be a convenient crutch, but the problem is Hingis can't spend a day inside Venus's skin, so she'd never know.

Cricket is less encumbered with this problem, but it exists. Players will tell you straight out about certain match referees (and the occasional umpire and player) who they view as racist, the former specially by reason of some astonishing rulings. Some Indian officials feel the same. Some of it may be paranoia (and an excuse for their own failings), but not everyone's imagination runs riot. Say what you wish, a black and white divide exists in cricket.

Sport must be alive to this. Skill we were always told does not recognise colour. We are still to prove that's true to our children.

Rohit Brijnath

Mail Rohit Brijnath