Imagine for a moment banana peels raining down on the head of Miami Heat basketball star LeBron James when he takes the court. Picture Vikings running back Adrian Peterson having to hear fans sing songs calling for his death because of the color of his skin. It’s difficult to visualize in US sports* but such scenes have become a normal feature of European soccer. Yet perhaps, in one moment of fury, the page may finally be turning on this ugly state of affairs. In a bracing display of courage, star midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, of the legendary Italian club, A.C. Milan, displayed all the frustration that’s been building among professional soccer players of color in Europe over the last two decades as they’ve endured all manner of toxic, racist garbage when they take the pitch.
In the middle of a “friendly match” against the club Pro Patria, a mini-mob in the bleachers repeatedly tossed bigoted bombs at the non-white players on AC Milan’s roster, and Boateng decided he’d had enough. He picked up the ball right in the middle of play and punted it directly into their section of the stands. Boateng then began to walk off the field in protest. Here is where, in a matter of seconds, the turn of events shifted from shock to wonder. As Boateng stormed to the nearest exit, the Pro Patria fans, instead of jeering, cheered him for his actions. Then the referees called off the rest of the game and his opponents on Pro Patria walked off with Boateng, shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity. The announcers could only utter a word in Italian easy to translate: “Incredible.”
There were those who commented immediately on Twitter that the moves by Boateng, the referees, and the Pro Patria players were easy because this wasn’t an official league game. But Massimiliano Allegri, the coach of AC Milan, said afterward that his team would walk out again if one of their players were racially abused, regardless of either the competition or the situation. The powerful Allegri also put out a call for other teams to stage walkouts if their players were similarly abused. Particularly significant about this is that the European soccer-governing body, UEFA, has explicitly banned players and coaches taking the fight against racism into their own hands. As UEFA chief Michel Platini has said, players will be fined or suspended for expressing anti-racist resistance on the field. Instead. they should just meekly tell the referee and go about the game. Boateng, Allegri and others are now saying that this isn’t close to good enough.
As Pete Koury, host and executive producer of SiriusXM FC said to me, “FIFA and UEFA have not done nearly enough to address the troubling issue of racism in world football. They’ve done a series public relations campaigns, T-shirts, and speeches, but their actions have been toothless. The only way to change things is through more dramatic action than we’ve seen so far. What Kevin-Prince Boateng and the players of both AC Milan & Pro Patria did today was one of the most drastic things we’ve seen to end racism in soccer and I applaud them for it. Considering this game took place in Italy—a nation of historically cruel and abusive fans—it makes me finally feel like there is finally progress being made.”
Koury’s point about Italy is particularly important. As sickening as the normalization of racist chants has become in European football, it’s especially toxic in the Italian league. The lightening rod for all the bigoted bile in the swamps of Italian fandom has been African-Italian star Mario Balotelli. Born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, the electric Balotelli has had to endure racist chants, songs calling for his death and, from the time he was a teenage sensation for Inter Milan, people throwing bananas at him in bars. In 2012, he said, “I will not accept racism at all. It’s unacceptable. If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail, because I will kill them.”
It was a powerful statement that resonated strongly with the younger, more diverse, “Balotelli generation” in Italy. But Boateng’s actions could actually be a far more profound game-changer felt across the world. They show that there are masses of Italian fans also sickened by the racist garbage that floats down from the stands. They show that white teammates as well as opponents will proudly stand with players of color. Lastly, they show in no uncertain terms that the days of enduring racist abuse, as if players in the twenty-first century are obligated to replicate the Job-like persona of Jackie Robinson in 1947, are done. No longer should players be expected to accept abuse as a normal part of play. No tolerance for racism can’t only mean statements from team officials after the fact. They demand direct action.
*I am in no way inferring that sports in the United States is either absent of bigotry or a Shangri-La for African-American athletes. But the consistent organizing of racist taunts in world soccer truly does set it apart.
Does Boateng’s brave move mark the start of a better year in sports? Read Dave Zirin’s post on why 2012 was so bad.