This series takes a look at the global issue of racism in sports (with a focus on football/soccer), searches for answers to explain our racial and cultural differences, and focuses on travel as a way to heal our sports, culture, and world. Check out part I of Sports, racism, and the healing power of travel and part III Travel can heal racism, cultural differences in sports.
I turned down a street I didn’t mean to go down. I ended up in a dead end square closed off from the rest of the tourist world. And I was surrounded by kids.
This square was the playground for a group of young kids. They were elementary school age and many of them were kicking the ball around, launching shots off the walls. I am sure a few of them even fantasized about being the next Lionel Messi playing for their beloved Barcelona football team.
This was the picture of innocence. There’s something refreshing and beautiful about watching little kids play. While kids can be mean to one another at times, watching kids play sports reminds me even though grown men and women make millions kicking, hitting, or throwing a ball around, these are still games meant for kids.
In the world of professional sports, that innocence can get lost. At their best, sports are the stage for incredible feats of skill and athletic ability, drama and heartache in a beautiful ebb and flow that most soap operas would envy. At their worst, sports are the devil’s playground for greed, envy, arrogance, hatred, anger, and a “do anything at all costs to win” attitude.
I still believe that sports are a great way to connect with the local culture. These games played by grown men and women can be both beautiful and ugly. When it’s the beautiful, the passion of the fans can be seen like the Canadians’ love of hockey. When it’s ugly, riots, injuries, and looting can result – because of the Canadians’ love of hockey.
Envy, greed, and bad behavior aside, how does a game played by kids with such innocence become an outlet for fans and players to spew hate and racism?
Minority American athletes excel in a segregated society
No matter where you live in the world, you can encounter some sort of bias, hate, or favoritism of one person over another based on race, culture, or religion. Even in the global game of sports, where players from all over the world play together as a team with men and women of different color, culture, and creed, racism and bigotry still exist.
Despite segregation, slavery, and race issues which were the focus of a war and a part of the United States for years, the world of sports was way ahead of society when it came to race.
Jim Thorpe may be one of the greatest athletes who ever lived. He was part Caucasian (white) and part Native American (Indian). He competed in the Olympics, won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, was an All-American in football in college, and competed professionally in all three major sports. Most of his accomplishments occurred before the end of World War I. And despite being raised by parents who were half Caucasian, Thorpe was subjected to racism.
Jesse Owens was once considered the fastest man on the planet. He excelled at Ohio State in track and field where he won eight different NCAA national championships. While traveling with the team to events, he was only allowed to order carry-out, eat at “black only” restaurants, and stay at “black only” hotels.
His greatest accomplishment came in 1936. Winning 4 gold medals at the 1936 Olympics was a record-breaking achievement. However, those 1936 games were held in Berlin – it was set up to be the perfect stage for German leader Adolf Hitler and his Aryan ideals. Jesse Owens couldn’t prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews or 50 million deaths in World War II. However, his heroic efforts were a symbolic victory and a source of pride for people of all race and color throughout the world in front of the most evil leaders in world history.
Adolf Hitler probably hated Jesse Owens until the day he died.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Both went on to Hall of Fame careers but they may have had the toughest road to the Hall of Fame of any players in baseball history. Many teammates embraced Robinson and Doby but many had trouble accepting them. Many opponents hated them and both players dealt with hard slides, insults (from players and fans), and getting hit with pitches. Yet part of their success was due to their ability to keep playing hard, take the abuse, and not fight back.
Why were great minority athletes like this able to succeed in American sports but still suffered the shame and segregation in American society because of their color?
For many of these athletes, they were in the right place at the right time with people that were willing to take a chance on these African-American athletes.
Maybe the color of green (money) was more important than the color of skin when it came to success.
Despite the abuse they received, there is no doubt that their success began to open the doors to racial healing and an end to segregation in American society. While all of them played many years before the Civil Rights movement, they helped make Civil Rights possible. Without them, the United States may have struggled with the racism, segregation, and Civil Rights movements of the 50s and 60s for another 20 or 30 years.
Despite the fact that segregation remained for many years, sports has played a role in healing. Studying the history of minorities in American sports shows how embracing different cultures and integrating them into society can have an impact on racism and segregation.
Maybe it didn’t happen as quickly as it should have but integrating minorities into sports broke down barriers and opened the door for integration and acceptance in society.
Europe, racism, and integration in the world of sports
Looking to Europe, there have been a number of successful athletes all over the continent. Name the sport and you will find some of the world’s best. Even in American sports, world class athletes like Dirk Nowitzki are making a name for themselves in the world of basketball.
However, Europe is dealing with issues of race and integration now that the US began tackling many years ago.
As a result of world wars, dictatorships, and the division of East and West as a result of communism, many European nations have had closed borders for years. As a result of the conflicts, one can understand why many people have had wounds and scars that have led to closed minds as well.
With the growth and expansion of the European Union, now there is more of an open door policy among countries that allows more integration of race and cultures in countries.
While colonization has allowed immigrants into countries like France, the Netherlands, and others for years, integration of these immigrants into the rest of the society has been an issue.
Like the US, the world of sports in Europe integrated people of various cultures and race long before the rest of society embraced it. However, Europe dragged its feet, even in the world of sports, and still faces issues of race today that many would argue the US has already overcome.
As an example, let’s look at two of the most popular and oldest sports in the US and England – baseball and soccer.
In the US, baseball has been played since the 1860s. Yet the first African-American wasn’t introduced into the major leagues until 1947. Today, the US is a nation that is integrated in many ways (yet still has its issues) and this is reflected in society and the game of baseball. Now, the game of baseball has become an international game where very few people even notice the color of the skin while watching some of today’s greats.
In 1974, a black man named Hank Aaron received death threats for threatening a white man’s, Babe Ruth, homerun record. Today, players of his generation like Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente (a Puerto Rican) are celebrated as some of the greatest players in the game’s history.
In England, professional football has been played since the 1860s. While professional football in England saw blacks play in the 1870s, the first black football player didn’t start for the England national team until 1977. Racism and hooliganism were major issues in England during the 70s and 80s. Today, hooliganism is still an issue in the sport while racism is still a major issue. See Luis Suarez and John Terry as examples.
35 years later after the first black man starts for the national team and England admits that race is a huge issue. Everyone from the EPL to the FA to the Prime Minister admit that these issues still exist. It’s not just the players that have an issue but also many fans. One minute fans can be cheering their team – made up of international players from countries all over the world. The next minute, they can be hurling insults of “monkey” and throwing bananas at a player on the opposing team for the color of his skin.
England isn’t the only country that faces these issues. The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and others have all faced recent issues of race in the world of football. There is even a global campaign to stomp out racism in the sport. The issue of racism isn’t confined to one sport or Europe. Throughout the world of sports, this is still a global issue.
World history, world wars, and the healing power of travel
Europe knows the pain of war and devastation on its own soil from world wars and conflicts. Both world wars began and were fought mainly on European soil. This area understands tension, cultural conflict, and border tensions that last for years.
World War II was a result of Adolf Hitler who sought to promote his Aryan race and stamp out all other races, cultures, and religions that got in his way. Aside from the millions of lives lost, the scars from those wounds still haven’t healed.
In the 90s, we saw this cultural conflict repeated in Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic. Neighbor turned against neighbor as they killed one another. Genocide in Europe reared its ugly head again.
To be fair, Europe isn’t alone. Look anywhere in Africa, South America, Asia, Australia, or North America and you can see many of these issues today. However, Europe has deep wounds. These wounds have resulted in biases, closed off cultures, and a struggle to integrate that still exists today.
To be fair, an American has no right to try and tell others what it’s like to have a war fought on home soil or explain how it feels to be at war with your neighbor. However, I look at the world of sports and all I know is that there are still issues of racism, integration, and cultural divides that still exist today.
All of us realize this. Watch the news and you can see the evidence. However, many of these attitudes live at home in hearts and minds and never make the news. However, tap into the passion of sports and give people an outlet for their emotions and you can see how much racism and other issues spill out onto the pitches, fields, and courts of sports.
The only way to heal these issues, in the world of sports of society, is to come together. We must reach across the divide and cross cultures. This may mean knocking on our neighbor’s door, crossing the street, going into a different neighborhood, visiting another part of your own country, or traveling somewhere else in the world.
Whether we are dealing with sports or society, I believe issues of racism and conflicts over cultural differences and religion will find healing through the power of travel.
Do sports help or hurt the cause of integration in our society?
In part III, we will examine how travel can help heal these wounds of the past and bring people together – in the world of sports and society.