Once again, racist acts in sports are on the rise

Raheem Sterling took a stand when Chelsea fans hurled racial slurs at him during a match. Steven Paston/EMPICS/PA Images/Getty Images

In 2018 we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, one of the first global instances of athlete activism. However, despite being a half-century removed from that watershed moment in Mexico, we still saw many racist incidents worldwide.

The positive legacy of 2018 was the continued rise of athlete activism. Colin Kaepernick became the face of Nike's newest "Just Do It" advertisement, despite not being signed by an NFL team. Fellow activist Eric Reid was signed by the Panthers in September but claimed he became the subject of an inordinate amount of drugs tests, which he considered harassment. LeBron James used his platform to speak out against rhetoric and policies coming out of Washington. James also opened his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, to help encourage young people to get an education. In addition, many athletes spoke up during the midterm elections, and several former professional athletes were elected to office in November.

There were small battles won and lost in the fight against racism. The Cleveland Indians announced they would remove the Chief Wahoo image from all uniforms, despite the organization continuing to sell merchandise with the logo. And the NFL team in Washington stood pat and continues to use its highly controversial nickname that I, like many others, consider racist.

For every battle won, it seems like 10 more instances of racism occurred around the world this past year. The University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport recorded 52 acts of racism in sports in the United States in 2018, up from 41 in 2017. Internationally, there were 137 instances of racism in sports in 2018, a sharp increase from the 79 acts of racism in 2017.

Russia, the host of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, was charged with fan racism nearly two months prior to the tournament starting, as fans directed "monkey chants" at players on the French national team. In a separate incident in a league game, fans chanted Nazi slogans.

Racial abuse by Russian soccer fans increased in anticipation of the World Cup to the point where players, such as England's Danny Rose, told their families not to attend the tournament because of the risk of being subject to racial slurs and abuse.

In order to combat racism at World Cup games, FIFA gave referees the authority to pause play and ask for racist chants or actions to stop, suspend the match if racist chanting persisted, and finally, as a last resort, abandon the match. To more closely monitor the fans in attendance, all matches had three anti-discrimination observers in the crowds. Despite these steps, FIFA added that a yellow card would be assessed to any players who left the pitch because of racist chants, risking ejection for the entire team from the competition. It's a policy that seemed to echo Fox News host Laura Ingraham when she told James to "shut up and dribble."

More recently, Raheem Sterling of Manchester City was the target of racist remarks from fans during a match against Chelsea. Sterling went on to speak out against these acts of racism and against the treatment of young black soccer players, which Nike applauded with this tweet:

Chelsea F.C. has been in the news several times during the year, as two former coaches were investigated at the beginning of 2018 for allegations of racism from the 1990s against black players.

To combat the rise in racism experienced by football players in England, the FA adopted its own version of the NFL's "Rooney Rule," requiring at least "one candidate from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background" to be interviewed for open positions. These rules, although created with good intentions, are unlikely to prevent further racist comments and actions by spectators and fellow competitors as they do not require teams to hire diverse individuals, just to interview them.

One potential reason we have seen racist incidents in sports increase over the past several years is that those in high political office in the U.S. and throughout the world are not reprimanded for making offensive statements regarding minority groups. A lack of accountability while holding our leaders to the highest standards has emboldened many people to lash out with hateful speech and actions. This pattern has been amplified and well documented since the 2016 presidential election.

In January, the predominately black men's and women's basketball teams from Labette Community College in Parsons, Kansas, visited North Arkansas College. They were met with "monkey noises and crow caws." Harrison, Arkansas -- where North Arkansas College is located -- is, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the national headquarters of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and was profiled as the "most racist town in America."

After Florida State's loss to in-state rival Florida in November, a man posted an image of FSU coach Willie Taggart being lynched in the Facebook group Florida State Football. Taggart is the first black head football coach in FSU's history. The image was later condemned by the school's president and the man who posted the image was fired from his job. The Florida State Attorney for the Second Judicial Circuit announced there would be further investigation into the incident.

Several incidents point to the sobering conclusion that our children are learning how to hate. It frightens me to see our next generation of leaders participating in and instigating acts of racism against their fellow students. In October, bananas were left in the locker room of an Ohio high school football team and were thrown at players during the game. A month earlier in Louisville, students at a football game passed around and smashed a watermelon in the stands while their high school played a predominately black team. In both these situations, school administrations said the acts were common practices at these events and not instances of racial abuse. The NAACP investigated the incident in Louisville and were surprised to learn that students of color participated and played a key role, which "highlights the need for more cultural understanding."

At the beginning of the year, the Cincinnati Premier Youth Basketball League ejected a team from Kings Mill from the league after finding sexist and racist names on the back of the children's jerseys, including "coon" and "knee grow." Unfortunately, it took the league three weeks to discipline the team, which had played with those jerseys for the first four weeks of the season.

Closing out 2018, Andrew Johnson, a high school wrestler from Buena, New Jersey, was subject to what was widely perceived as racial abuse from a referee who told him to either cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit his match. This incident went viral, with many people calling the young man a "team player," not recognizing the torment he was put through. Hair is a large component of the black identity, and to be stripped of that identity in front of coaches, teammates and parents who did nothing but sit back and watch is reminiscent of the indifference by everyone present to the inspection black men and women who were purchased at slave auctions.

In 2019, we need to see more athletes using their voice and platform to speak out against racism, sexism and the current political state of our country. I am grateful that so many are now. However, it is sobering to realize that athlete activists are speaking out, at least partially, in reaction to things they and others have experienced regarding their gender, ethnicity, race or religion. Although instances of racism increased across the world last year, I am hopeful that we can continue to learn about and support those who are different from us, and try to erase bigotry and hate in our world. If our children are learning how to hate, we can teach them how to love again.

Meaghan Coleman made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.