A number of recent high-profile cases show that racism in sport is becoming a more frequent and topical issue once again. With coverage dominating Britain, what are the possible repercussions in Ireland?

 

FIGHT AGAINST RACISM REMAINS UNSHAKEN

 

Following a number of recent high-profile cases, racism in sport has reared its’ ugly head again.  With coverage dominating both front and back pages in Britain, what are the possible repercussions in this country?  Is racism in sport still totally taboo in Ireland, or is it a topic now well and truly on the table? Kevin Fagan spoke to Sport Against Racism Ireland co-founder Ken McCue on the tricky matter that has gripped football.

 

It all started with a banana.  A skilfully back-heeled banana. In 1987, Liverpool’s John Barnes responded to the racist taunts of Everton fans in the most dignified of ways.  The banana thrown at him was flicked off the pitch by the Jamaican in a magnificently nonchalant manner.  However, 25 years later, racism in sport has engineered itself an unwanted return to prominence.  The fight against it is a particularly young one, and it was thought to be going strong.  Until recently.  That all changed in the cold winter just past. 

On the 15th of October, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez called Manchester United’s Patrice Evra a “negro”, six or seven times.  The next time the two met following his 8-match ban, Suarez amazingly refused to shake the hand of the man he had abused. Then, on November 2nd, England captain John Terry was accused of using racist language towards Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand.  Having been charged by the police, Terry will stand trial in July of this year.  The result was an explosion of coverage almost akin to the death of Diana.  The British tabloids swooned with incredulity and sensationalism at the same time. It was, and still is a circus.

With English football embroiled in this series of unsavoury incidents, the impact in Ireland is impossible to predict.  While English football is a much loved sport for a vast majority of Irish men, it is the undisputed king for kids off all ages in this country.  Every second youngster owns a replica jersey from their favourite Premiership team, and their support is just as ferocious as the match-goers themselves.  The question must be asked, how will these youngsters respond to the racism revival of recent months??

“Id be more worried about the influence on the kids’ fathers,” says Ken McCue, co founder of Sport Against Racism Ireland.  “When I was a kid going to Liverpool, if we misbehaved in the stand like that, we were told Bill Shankly would come out and dress us down.  If Suarez did that during Shankly’s time, he would’ve been sacked on the spot.  There’s no way Shankly would allow a player to wear the Red shirt if they had been using racist abuse. The problem is, there’s a big disjoint between the club and the community.”

Founded in 1997, Sport Against Racism Ireland, or SARI, has been fighting the good cause almost alone since its’ inception.  The organisation promotes ‘positive integration and social inclusion through sport,’ a sentiment which, according to McCue, just hasn’t captured the imagination in Ireland.  In between numerous radio interviews on the recent crisis, he has been working with the North Dublin Schoolboys League, and is saddened by what he hears.  “Every single one of those lads has been racially abused on the football team.  Every single one of them. In school, out of school, going to a match, on the sideline, on the pitch. It’s a huge problem. And not just in football by the way. We’re starting to get a huge number of reports from the GAA”

With the huge influx of foreign nationals into Ireland in the past 15 years, one could easily be forgiven for thinking this is a new problem for this island, but McCue disagrees.  “It goes back a long long time. We have evidence of racist abuse going back to when the All Blacks first came over with aboriginal players, even cartoons in a national newspaper.  Two Indian full backs who played for Trinity in the early 1950s suffered horrible racist abuse.  We haven’t learned from it, even though we’ve been subject to it all over the world.”

A sinister development which has crept in unnoticed at grass roots level is the use of rhyming slang to avoid sanction. “Youngsters who are using racist terminology aren’t using the n-word anymore,” says McCue. “They  use terms like ‘mechanical digger’, and if the referee doesn’t include that in the report, there’s nothing that can be done.”  He is critical of a culture of see no evil/hear no evil from the FAI, whom he says have been ‘’wriggling out of it.” It, being cases of racial abuse.  The sad fact is that if a referee does not include reference to an incident in his post-match report, no action will be taken by the governing body.  Even high profile cases caught on television are avoided with this report rule.  The classic example of this was in October 2009 on TG4, when Bohemians’ Joseph Ndo was clearly the subject of monkey chants from a section of Shamrock Rovers fans.  Despite the clip now being on YouTube, no action was taken as there was no reference in the referee’s report. 

Dodging the issue seems to be a running theme for the FAI, as last year, League of Ireland star player Eamon Zayed left this country for the liberal climes of Iran, following an incident where he was allegedly racially abused by Shamrock Rovers’ Chris Turner.  Turner escaped with a three match ban for ‘ungentlemanly conduct’. “That old chesnut, ungentlemanly conduct,” laughs McCue, “remember that one? Zayed was treated like shit, which probably explains why he’s in Iran now.”

There is hope of a sea-change, and in that way, the recent furore has been positive for SARI.  “Whats happened now is the Suarez/Terry case has brought the issue to the fore.  Believe it or not it has been useful in that it has the issue not only on the back page but the front page and centre-folds of the newspaper.  Its been on radio and debates and such. We’ve had people ringing up saying ‘oh I didn’t know you could report it,’ and ‘I thought it was part of the game,’ so that’s positive.” 

The organisation is also stepping up its’ investigations, with a number of ‘cold cases’ being reopened, and possilby going to court.  One such incident was in February 2010, when a 14 year-old Indian player from Broadford Rovers was allegedly subject to abuse from both the sidelines and the pitch.  According to a statement from the boys’ brother, members of the opposing team, including the coach, chanted “Jai Ho” at the Indian boy. After being confronted, members of the offending team protested their innocence, saying they “didn’t like things hot and spicy.” The match was abandoned after the abuse continued, with the team accused of racism being awarded the three points.

Although he enjoys the work, McCue would love to see the day when an organisation like his isn’t needed. “If you put all those incidents together, it means were still a business. We really should be making our jobs reduntant at this stage, but we’ve never been as busy.  There’s no funding, were not funded by the State at all, so it’s a struggle.”

The fight against racism in sport is indeed a struggle, but it’s one that SARI fights with dignity and dilligence.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a long road ahead.

 

For more information on SARI – visit www.sari.ie