Diran Adebayo
Yes, After John Terry, let’s talk about Race
('The Observer') July, 2012

As inhabitants of an unrigorous country concerned more with surface than substance, it’s time to get real.

Some years ago, in the late 1990s, I was invited by the writer Mike Marqusee to the first meeting of an embryonic “Let’s Kick Racism out of Cricket” campaign. About 20 attended, mainly white, some black – among them the former Gloucestershire and England bowler Syd Lawrence.

Speaking to the black contingent, I gained the impression that although we felt there were certainly issues around race out there, we also felt that many of these would be hard to target in this relatively genteel sport where much may be thought but little is directly said. And besides, there were other more urgent concerns, not primarily racial – chiefly the lack of cricket in state schools. And so the campaign died an early death, not for lack of white enthusiasm, which remained undimmed, but perhaps because of black indifference.

I’ve been reminded of this episode recently, reflecting on the John Terry court case (the England player was cleared of racially abusing QPR’s Anton Ferdinand). What has been most striking, at least to this observer, is how very upset white people seem to be about the “racism” that’s been exposed. In the papers and on the radio, people have been falling over themselves to express their progressive sentiments. But, as often when people protest too much, it seems to me that the loudness is as much to do with them as it is to do with anything more substantial.

For the great ship of state, it seems to me, chugs on as it ever has. UK black actors continue to head to the more career-friendly shores of the US. Increasingly black entrepreneurs are looking to African partners for assistance in pursuing their visions. Over here, we remain always “emerging” says one contributor to a recent book (Black British Perspectives) in which black artists speak among themselves.

We live in a rather unrigorous country that seems ever more concerned with the surface of things, rather than with any serious addressing of the more substantial stories beneath. And so we are all of a fuss about imposing heavy punishments on sportsmen and sports fans who say the wrong thing.

It is certainly good to take steps to reduce the amount of racial and other innuendo that some players and supporters have to endure at grounds. But being something of a Hobbesian, I have a slightly pessimistic view of the extent to which we can change people’s hearts. Violence and antipathy towards some “others”, however they are construed, seems to be necessary for many who need to counter their own insecurities.

Still, one thing this affair may do is deal a blow to one of the most tedious aspects of our surface times – our reverence of our sporting “role models”.

Growing up in slightly earlier, pre- role model times when one just had favourite sportsmen, and ascribed to them no higher function, it has been strange to see the almost total consensus about the idea that celebrated sportsmen nowadays guide young people’s opinions. After the full exposure of the abuse that John Terry and many other English footballers regularly dish out, we may begin to see some reining in of our excessive fawning over these rich, Xbox-obsessed children.

Novelist Diran Adebayo is currently writing a sports-centred memoir

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