British sport must examine its racist past

The writer, a British journalist, was the first sports editor of the BBC In nearly half a century of reporting sport in the British media, I have never known sports administrators -- notoriously resistant to change -- to move so swiftly on any subject as they have on race in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Both Premier League footballers and English cricketers have taken the knee at matches.

The Football Association, in an unprecedented move, will allow the gesture during the national anthem at the FA Cup final as an anti-racist statement. The England and Wales cricket board, having admitted that they failed to make the black community feel part of the game, have set up a new anti-discriminatory charter and are seeking to make the leadership more diverse. But unless sports executives are prepared to examine their racist past this may amount to no more than empty, fine-sounding words.

The past in sport is not a foreign country. Sporting achievements are measured by what has gone before and both players and fans are constantly invoking this. That is not to say we have not moved forward.

This generation of sportspeople led by footballer Raheem Sterling and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton is no longer willing to accept that the response to racism is to say nothing and show by their prowess on the field that blacks are equal to whites. This was the advice given to black footballers when I started reporting football in the 1970s for The Sunday Times. Back then the fascist National Front distributed its literature outside football grounds, shouting, "Get your colour supplement" and football authorities' response to racism was thunderous silence.

I experienced this myself on two occasions in 1981. While returning from reporting on football matches, racist supporters made me fear for my life. The first was when an Arsenal supporter chased me down the train shouting "Coon, coon, hit the coon over the head with a baseball bat", then a popular football song.

Fortunately, before he caught up with me a policeman intervened. The man was fined GBP20. A few months later on another train journey, young boys, who could not have been more than 12, asked me how as a "Paki" I knew anything about football, and wondered why I was not called Patel and managing a shop.

They also shouted "Sieg Heil" and asked me my opinion of Enoch Powell. As Manchester United fans, despite their team's win, they were upset that Remi Moses, "a wog", had scored. Then Chelsea fans invaded my compartment, jostled me around and debated who would be the first to hit "the wog".

Just then the train pulled into St Pancras, the police got on and again I was saved. When The Sunday Times wrote an article that November about my experiences neither Arsenal, Chelsea nor the football authorities responded. One football supporter wrote to me saying it was not my colour that had provoked the attack but because I was travelling first class.

I carried on reporting football but for almost five years after that did not take a train, drove everywhere and planned my football trips as if I was a general preparing for battle. I saw my car as the armoured truck that would speed me away from trouble. The days of overt racism have gone, but there are white fans who are now clearly fatigued by all this talk of racism.

This was brought home to me a year and a half ago at a seminar on sport when two white football fans, a Celtic supporter and a Manchester United season-ticket holder, said racist shouting in football did not matter and that all the problems were being manufactured by Kick it Out, football's anti-racist body. With one exception, the seminar audience did not appear to find these views objectionable. Those fans were clearly unaware of sport's racist past, a testimony to British sport's wonderful job of covering up its shameful history, particularly its relations with white South Africa.

All the major team sports in the UK were only very reluctantly forced to stop playing with the apartheid regime. Fifty years ago it required the intervention of the Labour government to force the Marylebone Cricket Club, which then ran English cricket, to cancel a tour by the all-white South Africa team. The 1986 British Lions' rugby tour of South Africa was stopped as a result of a legal campaign organised by Derek Wyatt, the former England international and later a Labour MP.

The doyen of English football, Stanley Rous, returned from a 1963 visit to apartheid South Africa and proudly announced that football there was not racist. Fortunately, he could not convince Fifa, the international football body. Paul Elliott, the former Chelsea captain who now chairs the FA's Inclusion Advisory Board, says racism is parked, not eliminated.

Sports bodies need to make sure the racist car is not in neutral but immobilised, and they cannot do that unless they own up to their past.

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