The tide of racism in sports still flowed strongly in 2015

AP Photo/Gail Burton

At the end of 2014, I wrote in an ESPN.com column that it had been "a year of unprecedented discussion about race in America." I wrote about how events involving police killings of unarmed African-Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, and on Staten Island in New York had triggered discourse about the nature and extent of racism in America. It turned out that those were stage-setters for further incidents that provoked even broader discussion about race.

The death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 set off large unrest in Baltimore, including the Orioles being forced to play to an empty stadium in order to limit further confrontations. Nine churchgoers died in a massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, in June. News about immigration both in the United States and abroad added an even broader undertone of fear, and attacks by ISIS elevated the fear factor to levels not seen since the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

I also wrote that "2014 was filled with news stories about racism in sport." That was no less true in 2015, especially internationally.

According to research and analysis from UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, there were 11 reported domestic incidents of racism in sports and more than 135 reported international incidents in 2015. That is down from 17 occurrences in the U.S. and way up from 89 internationally in 2014.

Sadly, four incidents of racism in the United States in basketball occurred at the high school level in different parts of the nation. They included a player hurling racial slurs at another player in New York, students leading a "U-S-A" chant toward a Pakistani player in California, fans holding "White Power" signs in Texas and a Nebraska broadcaster making a racist comment about "Firewater" and Native American basketball players during a state tournament. The latter dredged up memories of U.S. government officials giving whiskey to Native Americans in exchange for goods and other concessions. In football, there were incidents on both the college and professional levels. A four-star recruit retracted his commitment to Oklahoma after a racist fraternity video surfaced and went viral.

On the professional level, a fan attended a game between Washington's NFL franchise and the New York Giants dressed in red face paint. Of course, there were innumerable protests against Washington's name throughout the year as citizens spoke up about what they believed was the racist name of the team. Hundreds of Native Americans came together at a shopping center in Rapid City, South Dakota, to protest the behavior of fans at a Rapid City Rush game. Some fans reportedly poured beer and heckled a group of Native American youths on a class trip and told them to "go back to the rez."

In sports media, the Nebraska broadcaster was not alone with his racist comment. ESPN anchor Colin Cowherd was fired and Curt Schilling was suspended over racist comments about Dominicans and Muslims, respectively. In Australia, Fox commentator Billy Moore discussed, "that coconut style, Polynesian sort of football ..." about the NRL Warriors, reminiscent of a comment about their "jungle-ball" style made by Brett Kimmorley. Also in Australia, Fox Sports' Briony Ingerson caused a huge backlash when she posted an Instagram picture of herself and a friend in blackface. Mitch Fenner, who coaches the Dutch national team and is a BBC sport expert, was accused of racism after impersonating two Chinese fans in a voiceover during BBC2's coverage of the World Gymnastics Championship when he mocked Chinese voice patterns.

However, athletes continued to speak up, none with a greater impact than the football team at the University of Missouri. These athletes aided other student and faculty activists to force the school's chancellor and president out of office because of perceived insensitivity to racism on campus.

Following the Oklahoma fraternity incident, Sooners head coach Bob Stoops and his student-athletes unified in speaking out, including via social media and the hashtag "NotOUrCampus." This action helped diffuse the tensions at Oklahoma and may have helped pave the way for Missouri's football team.

Potential advancement also came in the form of a new initiative seeking to advance race relations using the power of sport founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross in 2015.

As in 2014, the number of racial incidents in sports in the United States did not come close to the number occurring internationally, in which more than 135 instances were reported.

Perhaps the most jarring statistic was one found by Moscow-based SOVA Center and UEFA-affiliate FARE Network: 92 incidents of discrimination via displays and chants by Russian soccer fans during the 2014-15 season. As Russia prepares to host the World Cup in 2018, these incidents are especially troubling. These numbers contradict the claims by Alexei Smertin, Russia's World Cup ambassador and a former player, that racism does not exist in his country. Smertin reiterated that racism comes from all over the world, but has never been a part of Russian soccer.

Several games throughout the world were played in empty stadiums as penalties for racist behavior. An anonymous Twitter user posted an insulting tweet about a player on Gamba Osaka's team after it defeated Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds. Urawa played a home match in an empty stadium after fans held a "Japanese only" banner at one match. The UEFA Hungarian team, playing against Romania, faced fines after its fans disrupted the Romanian national anthem. Hungary had to play its next home match in an empty stadium.

Anti-Semitism also found its way into soccer venues. In April, a group of Utrecht fans chanted anti-Semitic songs during the match between FC Utrecht and Ajax, while some AZ Alkmaar supporters sang anti-Semitic songs at a match against FC Groningen. Spartak Moscow fans displayed a banner featuring a Nazi symbol during the Russian Premier League game between Arsenal Tula and Spartak Moscow. At a Swiss Super League fixture between Luzern and St. Gallen, the latter team's fans unfurled a banner paraphrasing a Nazi concentration camp slogan. In June, a group of Bosnia and Herzegovina supporters chanted anti-Semitic slogans when their team played Israel in the UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifier. A large Swastika was marked out on the pitch of the Poljud Stadium when Croatia played Italy in their UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifier. FIFA announced plans to penalize national soccer organizations for inaction and not upholding existing rules to combat racism within the sport.

However, there were still too many incidents in which soccer became a platform for racism abroad. These ranged from Stirling University FC players wearing blackface and a Feyenoord Rotterdam fan throwing a banana at AS Roma's Gervinho to monkey chants in several stadiums and even players from AC Milan's under-10 team being subjected to racist abuse at a tournament in Italy. Retired Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi claimed that there are too many black players in Italian soccer. Additionally, FC UFA midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong faced a multi-game ban after he was sent off in Russia for his response to alleged racist taunts.

A subsequent column will give details of how FARE has used the power of sport to unify and be a welcoming, comforting force for the flood of immigrants flowing into Europe from the Middle East and Africa.

Because sport touches so many, it is not surprising that we continue to see incidents of racism in sport -- racism continues to exist in society. However, I applaud those who are seeking to turn this tide and make way for a more harmonious future.

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 is as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport for ESPN.com.