Racism reported in sports decreasing but still prevalent

Former Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook got into a heated verbal altercation with a fan in Salt Lake City on March 11, 2019. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

After an unprecedented increase in racist acts both in the United States and globally in 2018, there was some good news in 2019. According to research from the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), documented acts of racism in sports in the U.S. sharply decreased from 52 acts in 2018 to just 25 in 2019. However, internationally, there were 131 occurrences in 2019 compared to 137 in 2018.

In 2019, according to TIDES, a large amount of the international documented racist acts occurred during professional soccer games. Of the 131 racist acts in sports in 2019, 81 of them (62%) were related to soccer, the most popular and most played sport in the world. Most (89%) of these 81 occurrences took place in Europe, especially in world soccer powerhouse countries including Italy and England, as well as Eastern European nations Bulgaria, Montenegro and Russia. Most of the discrimination was targeted toward African, Muslim and foreign-born players on opposing teams within these countries' top leagues such as the Serie A in Italy and the English Premier League in England.

Stars in the game such as Romelu Lukaku, Mario Balotelli and Paul Pogba publicly cited individual acts of racism committed against them in 2019. In November, Balotelli threatened to leave his club game against Hellas Verona after being the target of racial abuse from the crowd. In October, English players were verbally abused by fans during a Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria in Sofia.

There have been efforts to combat and bring more awareness to the troubling realities of racism within the international soccer world. In October, the Italian soccer federation declared consideration of employing advanced listening devices used in anti-terrorism operations to identify offending fans. The launch was slated for March 2020. Not long after, the president of UEFA, Aleksander Ceferin, publicly criticized international soccer's lack of effort to tackle racism. FIFA leaders strengthened their disciplinary code on racism, doubling their minimum ban for racist incidents to 10 games per offense, fines for clubs starting at 20,000 Swiss francs (approximately $20,000), and inviting players to make victim statements at disciplinary hearings.

In December, Manchester United's Pogba, a consistent victim of racist verbal abuse in English Premier League games, brought some awareness to the issue by wearing black and white wristbands during the warm-up for a game. After winning the Ballon d'Or in December, USWNT midfielder Megan Rapinoe sent out a call for action to Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to help use their voices to speak out on the blatant racism and sexism in the sport. "I want to shout: 'Cristiano, Lionel, Zlatan, help me!" Rapinoe said while speaking to organizers France Football after winning. "These big stars do not engage in anything when there are so many problems in men's football. Do they fear losing everything? They believe that, but it is not true. Who will erase Messi or Ronaldo from world football history for a statement against racism or sexism?"

While it's important for high-profile players to use their voices to speak out on these issues, it is not enough. We must challenge governing bodies and clubs to step in and put a stop to the hate. It is time for executives within these clubs to act and implement change.

Racism and its effects also hit home in 2019, especially in hockey and basketball, which endured multiple documented racist acts as well.

At TIDES, these documented racist acts, both in the U.S. and worldwide, were compiled via Google alerts for "racism in sports" throughout 2019. At the end of the year, the summaries based on the Google alerts were calculated to get the total number of racist incidents in sports. These incidents were then split up by sport and region (domestic or international). Social media incidents included in this research are based on those that have been reported by media outlets and appeared in a Google alert.

Headlines were made early last year at a Utah Jazz game when a fan allegedly directed "disrespectful" and "racial" comments toward former Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. Jazz executives, in addition to other Utah sports teams moved into action and came together for a "Lead Together" initiative against racism and hate speech. Initiatives like this one, turning a negative into a positive, are what other executives and owners across the NBA and other American professional leagues need to emulate and apply to their own organizations.

In August 2019, San Jose Sharks player Evander Kane was subject to a racist now-deleted comment on Instagram saying he should "stick to basketball." This raised larger concerns about the lack of diversity throughout hockey. Fewer than 5% of players in the NHL are players of color. Then, in November, notable hockey commentator Don Cherry spewed a hateful rant targeting the many immigrants in Canada in which he referred to them as "you people" and called on them to be more appreciative of veterans who afford them "the way of life [they] enjoy in Canada." Cherry was quickly fired from his position with Sportsnet. That same month, Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters was accused of using racial slurs toward Nigerian-born player Akim Aliu when coaching him in the minor leagues a decade prior. The accusations were corroborated by two other players on that team and Peters was promptly removed from his position.

Thankfully, there have also been efforts in the sport to put an end to racist and hateful behavior. USA Hockey, the governing body for the sport in the United States, has made efforts to fight back against racism. They announced in late October that the penalties for racial or derogatory slurs by players would be met by harsher penalties, including a five-minute penalty, ejection from the game, and suspension from further participation until the matter is reviewed.

The racist acts of 2019 within the sports world should be an incentive for our top sports leaders and athletes to be sure that their leagues and teams can be role models for society and that there be a rigorously enforced no-tolerance policy of racism and hateful acts. In this new decade, we cannot let hate win. Sports can help lead the way.

David Morrin and Nicholas Mutebi 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, 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.