Black people have always been prolific when it comes to sport. It is the one area where we are celebrated, encouraged, and somewhat supported, and when we ‘bring it home’ we are globally acclaimed and claimed with the heritage of the country we are winning for.
But never have I been prouder of Black people when it comes to sport right now. Someone said to me the other day, ‘I like Lewis Hamilton, and I like what he stands for, but it’s not right that he is using his position and profile to advance the race conversation’.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Those in high profile positions with a wide-reaching platform are exactly the right people who we need to vocalise and to do so as loudly as possible. Because if the debacle of the Euros 2021 is anything to go by, we are still so far away from authentic equality & equity, it’s sickening.
Right there with the whole of the nation watching, we witnessed how completely colour blind the people are when we win, but oh how vilified we are for having a different skin tone, when we lose. The copious amounts of racial abuse the day after the ‘loss’, was physically and mentally threatening.
Every Black person watching Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after those penalties, knew at that very moment that things were so not going to be OK for them individually or as a race & that the conversation and the triggers which were guaranteed to ensue, were going to lead to an emotionally exhausting week.
Those who know football, know it’s nothing new, racism is heavily prevalent in this domain and has always been there. Racist tweets are directed at Black players after almost every game especially when a team loses or they make a mistake (note to twitter and Instagram – it’s not that difficult to get a process in place to trace, prosecute and permanently ban racist perpetrators!). However, the reason it was highlighted more than ever is because of the very real current narrative on the lack of equality, that it is being highlighted more and more publicly and in particular by high profile Black sports people.
This is a team that have showed political prowess and stance. Members of the England team (Marcus Rashford, Jordan Henderson, Tyrone Mings, Raheem Sterling amongst others) have been criticised for taking the knee and demonstrating how much Black Lives Matter to them, since July 2020 and throughout the 2020-21 Premier League season.
As their Manager Gareth Southgate states ‘I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players’. “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.” Raheem Sterling is my son’s idol and I know why. Not only is he an amazing footballer – clearly demonstrated at the Euros 2021 – but it’s the way in which he deals with the noise, criticism, racism that astounds me. He is so gracious and calm. Concentrating on his sport and his family. Not allowing it to penetrate publicly. But using his voice strongly and directly to call out racism. I often wonder if I could do the same, subjected to that volume of criticism.
And despite the vitriol, Marcus Rashford’s response to the racists, and how he reacted, made me proud – in fact it brought me to tears. He penned an open letter of apology and honesty, 24 hours after the heartbreak of the shootout.
“I can take critique of my performance all day long, my penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in, but I will never apologise for who I am and where I came from,” he wrote. “I’m Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old Black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else, I have that.”
An apology. Who of us finds this easy? I love this young person, teaching life lessons to those who should know better! He is such an inspiration, a trail blazer and advocate.
And we have Lewis Hamilton. If you haven’t read his article in the Guardian, you should-it’s a must read. But to surmise, yes, he has in some people’s opinion, made mistakes, but he has found his voice to talk to what matters to him as a Black man and a Black man in an elite sport with little diversity.
He has recognised that via his profile of sporting excellence he can make a difference. He is literally putting his money where his mouth is by creating the ‘Hamilton Commission’, which sets out tangible recommendations that are’ ambitious and logical’. They include asking F1 teams to implement a diversity charter; increasing the number of Black teachers in Stem subjects; a fund to expose excluded students to Stem and motor-sport-related activities; and a scholarship programme to encourage Black Stem graduates into specialist motor sport roles. But as Lewis states himself ‘the challenge is making institutions adopt these plans as their own, prioritising and then enforcing them’. There is work to do!
Let’s not forget the Black women in sport who are unapologetically smashing the glass ceiling and standing up for what they believe in. I’m here for it – those who are not just being a fine example of excellence in their field, but as role models for diversity and women’s rights.
Take Naomi Osaka, the 22-year-old US Open champion who has Japanese and Haitian heritage. She found her voice with a resounding bang – in Sept 2020 she strode on court at the US open wearing the first of seven masks (for each of her seven matches) beginning with Breonna Taylor and following with Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice. All Black Americans killed via racial injustice and police brutality.
This woman is not only is the highest-earning female athlete in the world but ‘this girl can’ generate talk on and off the court and is the epitome of using one’s platform for good. In light of the Haiti earthquake, Naomi took to socials to share her hurt over the devastation saying, ‘I feel like we really can’t catch a break’. Naomi pledges to give all prize money won in her latest match, to the relief efforts for Haiti stating, ‘I know our ancestors’ blood is strong we’ll keep rising’. I have so much admiration for this woman who is truly walking the walk, with her head held loud and proud.
I must admit that up until recently I didn’t know much about Allyson Felix, who is an elite track and field Olympian. But her story is one that will not only give you goosebumps but may make you cheer audibly. Firstly, she felt the need to hide her pregnancy so she could compete, knowing what it meant to be a mother in her field! She then, traumatically, gave birth to her daughter at 32 weeks, after severe complications.
“The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, and the outcomes of pregnancy and childbirth are even direr for Black women. Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.”
Following this she went public as Nike, her sponsor, cut her pay by “70% less than she earned before she became a mom despite her accomplishments, and also for refusing to “contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the months surrounding childbirth.”
Nike have since improved their maternity policy, but their action was at a cost to Allyson.
However, the sheer strength & confidence it must have taken to break her NDA and publicly shame and take on Nike is beyond impressive. Not only did she find a new sponsor, but she also unapologetically made change happen, she has since gone on to financially help and support other competing athletes who have childcare costs and she is ‘bringing it home’ from Tokyo winning her 11th medal, more than any other U.S. athlete in Olympic track history!
There are so many more examples that I could talk to; Simone Biles the American artistic gymnast who has a combined total of 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, who put her mental and physical health front and centre, bowing out of one of her individual events at the Tokyo Games, several weeks ago. That act, of courageously understanding her limits, will have helped, and inspired a whole generation of young people to stand by what they believe in and to believe in themselves even when they at not at their best.
The list goes on, but lastly I’m super excited to watch King Richard, starring Will Smith, a upcoming American biographical film of the story and journey of Richard, Serena and Venus Williams. A story of a successful Black family and what they went through to achieve the results they have today. A film that is set to inspire the world!
Further reading materials