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Action Replay: Remarkable Behaviour

We’ll not comment on the recent developments in football: one Premier League player suspended for eight matches after being found guilty of racist remarks to an opposing player, one facing a criminal charge, and another apparently being racially abused by a spectator. But there’s no doubt that racism has been a problem in sport, and continues to be so. Athletes, administrators, commentators, spectators – any can be responsible for racist views, language and actions.

In the past racism in sport went well beyond name-calling. US baseball operated a de facto ban on black players till as late as 1946. It was sometimes described as a gentlemen’s agreement, and this was not an ironic use of ‘gentleman’. In apartheid-era South Africa, rugby union was essentially a game for Afrikaners, while football was the game played by the black population.

In this connection it is instructive to look back at the career of Arthur Wharton, born in Ghana (then known as the Gold Coast) in 1865. He came to England in 1882, broke the 100-yards world sprint record, played professional cricket and then played professional football for Rotherham and Sheffield United (he is often claimed to have been the world’s first black professional footballer). But he never enjoyed any kind of fame, and after retiring from sport worked as a miner, dying in poverty in 1930.

Such experiences might make a few phrases uttered in the heat of a match seem like small beer. And it’s hardly original to say that sport simply reflects the wider society. But there’s clearly still a long way to go in overcoming racist ideas.

PB