Here it comes again: what they used to call the English problem. In Munich, England football fans are arrested for making Nazi salutes and damaging a hotel room before Tuesday’s Nations League tie with Germany. Before the match, manager Gareth Southgate reveals his task of preparing his players to take penalties is now complicated by the racist abuse they received after spot-kicks were missed in the European championship final.
Against that backdrop, the idea that sport could play a leading role in dragging a reluctant world into a truly non-racial future may seem a ridiculous fantasy. And yet, that is happening. In the two years since the murder of George Floyd, sport has taken more meaningful steps on this long and tortuous journey than any other sector of society.
Look closely and you’ll see that reactions from the sporting world to Floyd’s murder have been among the most dramatic in society. Ebony Rainford-Brent, England’s first black female cricketer turned Sky commentator, told me: “I felt absolutely sick for two to three weeks. I was fed up that racism is a huge elephant in the room.”
Before Floyd’s killing she had not felt bold enough to talk about racism – and who could blame her? Her full name is Ebony-Jewel Cora-Lee Camellia Rosamond Rainford-Brent, and at one of her first cricket trials a white triallist said: “Oh, you are from Brixton, aren’t you? Bet your mum doesn’t know who your dad is, so she’s just giving you a name for everyone.”
But following Floyd’s murder, Rainford-Brent went on three Black Lives Matter marches. Later, she broke down during a Sky meeting, telling her white colleagues about how she never expected to work with a black director or a black producer, “because I know how the world operates”. The company was so shocked that she and her fellow commentator, Michael Holding, who had also never spoken about racism, were asked to produce a documentary on race.
The result was an important film that argued racism could only be eradicated if society was told about the achievements of people of colour airbrushed from history by white writers. For British broadcasting, which had traditionally been reluctant to discuss racism in sport, this was sensational, and it emboldened Nasser Hussain, the former England cricket captain, whose father is of Indian origin, to confess that he, too, had concealed the racism he had suffered. “We’ve all been looking away too long.”
Three weeks earlier, footballers in the Premier League made waves when they began to take the knee. Initially the antiracism gesture was met with opposition but it has now become an essential part of the game and one that is supported by white players. This is in stark contrast to previous generations who stood by as their black teammates were racially abused, even at times joining in. As John Barnes, who played for England in the 1980s, told me: “When I first started playing, your own teammates would call you ‘nigger’.”
And the changes are happening at all levels. Mark Bullingham, the chief executive of the FA, who was also shaken by watching footage of Floyd crying out, “I can’t breathe”, speedily introduced a football diversity code aimed at making the game more inclusive. When I asked Bullingham about white privilege, he admitted, with remarkable candour: “I think every white person has benefited from white privilege.”
Some sports have even gone as far as accepting their error in denying racism. In November 2009, Pat Cash, the Australian winner of the Wimbledon men’s singles in 1987, told me that tennis in England is a “white, middle-class sport”. When the interview appeared, the Lawn Tennis Association immediately contacted the paper, rebutting this. Now, Scott Lloyd, the chief executive of the LTA, tells me he agreed with Cash, and within days of Floyd’s murder issued an open letter, admitting: “Racism, and wider discrimination, is structurally ingrained in our society, and so the effect of racism is still very much evident and pervasive within our sport.” Rugby has never apologised for its shameful support of apartheid, but Sue Day, its chief operating and financial officer, told me: “Every institution that we are part of in this country has been built on racist structures.”
The above examples show sport’s unique power. It has always had many almost spiritual advantages compared with other popular pastimes. It has echoes of religious observance in its theatre, ritual and beauty. A visit with fellow supporters to an important fixture away from home, especially overseas, is reminiscent of a medieval pilgrimage. In certain respects, belief in a team or an athlete is a “safer”’ investment than religious faith. And it is easier to sack the England football manager than the archbishop of Canterbury.
In today’s post-truth world, sport results are a rare source of trusted news. Not even Donald Trump could claim a sports score was fake. Sport is also simultaneously a global language, and a marker of personal and local identity. You do not have to know Portuguese to appreciate Brazilian football. Sport has the ability to galvanise the collective and spark societal change in a truly unique way.
This public reckoning with historical racism could not be more different to the smug conclusion reached by the government-endorsed Sewell report on race, which minimised the truth of institutional racism: a conclusion that so delighted government ministers.
It shouldn’t have taken the murder of a black American by a white policeman for British sport to come clean on racism. And there is a long way to go. But seeing people at all levels in sport – from the players to the chief executives – asking themselves hard questions does indicate a desire to change, something not so evident in the rest of society.