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Racism still evident in sports world

Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Derrick Rose were among many prominent athletes who took public stands on social issues in 2014. Getty Images, Getty Images, USA TODAY Sports

2014 has been a year of intense discussion about race in America. The shootings of unarmed African-Americans by police and the subsequent grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York, have set off a series of debates about the current nature and extent of racism in America.

More specifically, 2014 was filled with news stories about racism in sports. Although it seems we have made much progress in hiring practices in our front offices and league offices, there are still racial issues in sports we must deal with both domestically and, especially, internationally.

What was different about 2014 in sports were the newly raised voices of athletes speaking out on racial issues.


Through Dec. 23, there were 17 reported domestic incidents of racism in sports and 89 reported international incidents in 2014.

Domestically there were 10 incidents of racism in football, six in basketball and one in the UFC.

The NBA dealt with two major incidents of racism: the leaked tape of Donald Sterling's racist remarks and Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson's self-reported email with racist content. A third owner's remarks were also questioned.

The most widely discussed case was that of Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Although Sterling's racist comments were not news to many, given his past, hearing the shocking words on the audio recording was enough to have him removed as owner of the team and handed a lifetime ban from commissioner Adam Silver.

On Sept. 7, reports came that an email written by Levenson in 2012 included racist remarks. The email was self-reported by Levenson.

In the email, Levenson theorized that the team's struggle to fill the arena was because "the black crowd scared away the whites, and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season-ticket base." The email was sent to other members of team management. Levenson announced he would sell his controlling interest in the team.

In October, Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber listed "hoodish" as one of the languages he planned to learn. Guber, who is Jewish, later said he intended to say "Yiddish."

The National Football League, though currently dealing with domestic violence and child abuse incidents, has had recent trouble with racism as well. In 2013, there was an investigation into the Miami Dolphins' locker room that started out as a bullying inquiry but also uncovered racism and homophobia directed toward offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, another young offensive lineman and an unnamed assistant trainer of Asian descent. According to the NFL, three Dolphins offensive linemen used verbal harassment and text messages, in which they often referenced shooting black people and raping Martin's sister. This scandal prompted discussion on the use of derogatory racial terms such as the N-word in sports.

The full report on the Dolphins' incident was released in February.

Racism not only affected sports at the professional level but also at the collegiate and high school levels. In August, a Miami high school football team reportedly received a racist letter before the team made a trip to Alabama for a nationally televised game. The coach claimed the letter told him to "remind your [expletive] who were traveling to Birmingham to pick up their chicken bones and red cups from which they drink their Kool-Aid and liquor out of."

There was also an incident at the collegiate level in which a Texas Tech "super fan" allegedly called one of the country's best college basketball players, Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State, the N-word and told him to "go back to Africa," though the claims were never confirmed.

The number of racial incidents in America does not come close to the number reported internationally over the past year. This was especially true in soccer. Of 89 incidents, 80 were in international soccer, three in rugby, two in basketball, two with former Olympians and one each in cricket and hockey.

Fan racism continued to plague the international soccer community. It got so bad that governing bodies had to close arenas during matches, cancel matches and fine teams. There were reports of racial slurs, racial chants, anti-Semitic chants, waving of Nazi flags, bananas thrown on the field, racial abuse, monkey gestures and racist signs/banners. Forty soccer players and one entire team were reportedly racially abused by fans and spectators in 2014.

No international incident was worse than when Carlo Tavecchio made racist comments during his campaign for president of the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC). During the 2014 election, Tavecchio referred to African international soccer players as "banana eaters."

Despite drawing much criticism for the comments, Tavecchio was elected president of Italian soccer's governing body. Originally, the Italian FA had cleared him of any wrongdoing over the remark, but FIFA and UEFA decided to impose a ban that would make Tavecchio ineligible for any position as a FIFA or UEFA official for six months.

International basketball also saw its share of racially charged incidents. After Real Madrid's loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final of Europe's main basketball tournament in May, almost 18,000 anti-Semitic messages appeared on Twitter. During the investigation into the incident, Esteban Ibarra, the president of Spanish advocacy group Movement Against Intolerance, claimed his office identified more than 1,500 websites, pages or blogs in Spain that promoted racism or anti-Semitism.

On the positive side, this past year also showed sport can be one of the most powerful platforms in the fight against injustice and racism. During the Sterling scandal, we saw Clippers players take a stand against their racist owner by turning their jerseys inside out during warm-ups and even threatening to sit out playoff games. Silver took as strong a stand as might have ever been seen in sports when he banned Sterling for life.

More recently, the decisions by separate grand juries not to try the police officers involved in the deaths of Brown and Garner provoked players in the NFL, NBA, WNBA and men's and women's college basketball to make their disappointment public.

On Nov. 30, St. Louis Rams players Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt took the field during pregame introductions in the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" pose used by protesters in Ferguson, in reference to the Michael Brown case.

NBA superstars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and others wore "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts during pregame warm-ups to put a focus on the Eric Garner grand jury decision. Kevin Durant also wrote "Black Lives Matter" on his game shoes before the nationally televised game between his Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

As someone who has tried for decades to urge athletes to use their powerful platform to address difficult social issues, I am heartened by these recent efforts. Over the past 60 years, you can count the number of activist athletes on two hands. Among them have been Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Arthur Ashe.

There have been recent hopeful moments. In 2013, AC Milan star Kevin Prince-Boateng kicked the ball toward the crowd, took off his jersey and walked off the field, followed by his entire team. Prince-Boateng, who is from Ghana, had been racially taunted by the fans throughout the game.

With five NBA superstars now standing tall, I hope others will find their courage and join them before the news cycle passes. With them, sport can continue to use its powerful platform for social change. Society cannot afford another Ferguson or Staten Island, and sport cannot afford to witness another 106 reported incidents of racism in 2015.