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September 22, 2021

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Tackling scourge of online, offline racism in sport

Sport cannot use the excuse that racism is “a societal issue” when it comes to stars suffering social media abuse, according to a leading figure at a global strategic consultancy.

Radha Balani, a director at thinkBeyond, which focuses on utilizing sport for social good, said social media companies merely suspending the trolls’ accounts is little more than “sticking plaster” on the problem.

And she urged federations and clubs to take a hard look at the values of companies and brands before signing sponsorship deals.

England footballers Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford were the target of racist abuse after they missed penalties in the shootout with Italy in the Euro 2020 final in July.

The majority came from accounts within the United Kingdom, but one of the abusers was from Saudi Arabia. He had his Instagram account suspended for just 24 hours, and told the BBC last week he deserved a longer ban.

Balani, who in her career has worked for American tennis legend Billie Jean King and World Rugby among others, said the British government should be labeling this abuse as hate crimes.

“When is the UK Government going to challenge Twitter to (change) its regulations that allow for hate crimes to go unpunished in any meaningful way?” she said.

It is sport, though, that Balani believes must also take a stronger stance.

“Sport has its role to play. It cannot hide behind saying racism is a societal issue — sport is part of society and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said.

“Sport has many levers it can pull to make a positive impact — it’s already doing some of these, but more depth, intentionality and bravery is required in order for wide-ranging, sustainable impact to come about. Sport is not magic, and it won’t change things unless we pull on those levers.”

Balani said one of those levers comes from the athletes themselves raising awareness of issues and lobbying for change. “Taking the knee is part of this, as is Naomi Osaka’s use of face masks,” she said. At last year’s US Open, Osaka sported face masks bearing the names of individuals who had died of alleged police or racist violence in the United States.

Balani said that while Osaka’s actions and the England men’s and women’s football teams taking the knee could have an impact, professional sport and governing bodies “must also hold brands and businesses to account when racist action is seen.”

She pointed to the monkey chants directed at black England players in Budapest when they played against Hungary in a World Cup qualifier last month.

“FIFA punishing Hungary is one thing, but will FIFA use its influence and power to challenge the Hungarian government to hold itself and its citizens to account?” Balani said.

She said clubs and federations should carefully study the values of potential sponsors before signing up.

“Who are we buying from in our supply chain? What are their values and policies?” she said. “By investing, buying in from them, are we further embedding institutionalized racism, or are we allowing diverse, equitable and inclusive businesses and organizations to thrive, therefore impacting both sport and society?”

Balani believes there is still work to do within governing bodies, so those in charge hold views that chime with the fight against racism.

She pinpoints former controversial comments from the chairman of the English Football Association Greg Clarke — using the term “colored” for black players, for example — in front of a British parliamentary committee, which cost him his post last year.

“Greg Clarke’s comments were so recent that I don’t think the sector can say it’s doing a good job of this yet,” she said.

“That he even thought what he said is appalling, that he said it is utterly disgusting. I recognize there were ramifications, but why was he there in the first place?”


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