The year in racism and sports

January 25, 2017, 9:21 AM

— -- Many think of sports as being a sanctuary which racism cannot penetrate, but they often reflect what is going on in society. There seems to be a broad agreement that acts of racism in the United States are increasing at an alarming rate. The same was true in sport in 2016, where such acts tripled from 11 in 2015 to 31 in 2016, according to research and analysis from the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics and Sport. There were 104 reported incidents of racism in sports internationally in 2016.

All over the world, individuals witnessed 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the national anthem. His action created a great deal of controversy nationwide. Some believed it to be a sign of disrespect, while others saw it as someone using his platform to take action for what he believes. Kaepernick's actions influenced athletes on every level, from Pop Warner to professional sports. Rodney Axson Jr., a high school football player, followed suit and knelt during the national anthem because of the ethnic slurs he heard from teammates. According to Kaepernick, the silent protest represented support for people of color who are being oppressed in the United States and it was a stand against police brutality. In 2016, 963 people were shot and killed by police.

In July, NBA stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade  gave a powerful message at the ESPYS about gun violence and the use of force by police against people of color. The message reflected the killings of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, as well as the deaths of five police officers in Dallas at the hands of a lone gunman, which had happened one week prior.  Collegiate athletics were not immune from this either. Columbia University's wrestling team was suspended by the school because of lewd text messages sent by athletes. The messages included racist, misogynistic and homophobic language. In addition, Amherst College suspended the men's cross country team for similar behavior via text messages. Amherst College athletics director Don Faulstick stated the messages "violate the 'zero-tolerance' standard toward bigotry of any kind that we explicitly set for our athletes."

On the professional level, the NBA relocated the 2017 All-Star Weekend set to take place in Charlotte, North Carolina, because of the violation of civil rights instituted by North Carolina's House Bill 2. The bill made it unlawful for any individual to use a restroom other than the gender that is listed on the individual's birth certificate. While the NBA has been vocal in acknowledging that it cannot choose the law in every state, its values of inclusion do not align with those of North Carolina. In a statement, the league added, "we have been guided in these discussions by the long-standing core values of our league. These include not only diversity, inclusion, fairness and respect for others but also the willingness to listen and consider opposing points of view." This law also led the ACC and the NCAA to take similar action with their events in North Carolina.

In the NFL, New York Giants player Nikita Whitlock's home was robbed and vandalized with a variety of racial epithets including a spray-painted swastika, the letters KKK, and a message that read "Go Back to Africa."  Another wall in the house had a spray-painted message that read "Trump." The same week, Denver Broncos lineman Brandon Marshall, who had joined Kaepernick in his anthem protest, posted disturbing hate mail he received. The letter referred to Marshall as the N-word repeatedly, along with other racial slurs, and concluded by threatening his life. In response, Marshall took advantage of the platform by stating that for the remainder of the season he would stand for the national anthem. "Going forward I will be standing for the national anthem," Marshall said. "Not because everything is perfect or because I am changing my stance on things, but because of my hope for what we can become."

Unruly fans sparked attention in media headlines at sporting events throughout 2016. In Chicago, a man dressed in a gorilla suit stormed the field at a Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions game. The man wore a T-shirt that read "All Lives Matter" and "Put The Guns Down." In late October, the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a statement after a photo went viral of a fan wearing a racist costume representing President Barack Obama. The university acknowledged the highly insensitive and offensive nature of the costume, and said that this photo was in no way a representation of the values held by the institution.

A Serena Williams fan  dressed up in blackface at the Australian Open. The act raised questions of racism and the acceptability of blackface in Australia. Dr. Tim Soutphommasane, Australia's race discrimination commissioner, stated, "while a person may not set out to do damage by wearing blackface, it's not up to them to decide whether the act is offensive." The behavior of fans is not something that goes unnoticed by sports and team officials. For example, one of the Balkans' most popular clubs, Levski Sofia, has been penalized for fan behavior. The team has a history of racism at its matches. UEFA ordered the team to play its final match behind closed doors and fined it €57,000. It's important to note that of the 104 international racial incidents in sports, 93 were specifically related to soccer.

At a European Championship match in June between Croatia and the Czech Republic, UEFA reported fans singing far-right songs and displaying offensive banners throughout the stadium. The behavior eventually led to fighting among Croatian fans during the game. UEFA has a Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body that oversees cases of racism. The group will be overseeing this case, along with various other cases of racism among fans. These incidents do not always occur in the heat of competition. Away from the pitch, former England soccer player Paul Gascoigne was fined £1,000 ($1,305) for making a racist comment to a black security guard while hosting an event.

Coach Didier Deschamps was accused of allegedly omitting Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa from France's national team because of their North African roots. The French national team has been a model for ethnic integration, and this accusation has accumulated a great deal of questions about racism that exists on the team.

Racist internet memes targeted retired AFL star Adam Goodes. One meme compared Goodes to Harambe the gorilla. The first of many memes had been liked on Facebook by over 5,500 people, and most of the comments were highly racist. The Facebook page administrator responded by removing the posts, but said the posts were "just for fun, to make people laugh, that was not racism." Athletic Bilboa's Inaki Williams was taunted by fans singing racist and abusive chants during La Liga's opening weekend. Williams is Athletic's first black player in its 118-year history. Teammates supported him and came to his defense by attempting to silence the crowd, which eventually led to an announcement made over the PA system reminding fans that racism of any form would not be tolerated.

Anti-semitism continues to rear its ugly head in soccer stadiums. Right-wing extremism increased in Italy, where rowdy fans chant racist slogans and make racist signs. Polish soccer fans burned effigies that were dressed in traditional Orthodox Jewish attire calling for violence against Jewish people. After covering a match, soccer commentator David Guetta was harassed by approximately 20 Italian men chanting at him "Guetta, a train to Mauthausen is waiting for you," referring to the Austrian concentration camp. Johnny Daniels, head of the Holocaust research group From the Depths, expressed the need for action against this behavior, "This is a shameful example of xenophobia, racism and anti-semitism in sports, where it truly has no place."

While 2016 saw many incidents from the past repeat themselves, let us all hope that 2017 is a year in which the world embraces the belief that we are all cut from the same human fabric.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual racial and gender report card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.