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The Last Word: A Red Card on Racism

Racism was as prevalent in European soccer stadiums as corner kicks and yellow cards several years before that.

June 1, 2014
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Soccer June 2014

Two things stick out for me from my inaugural trip in 2006 to the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference.

The first: Three days of near-biblical rain in our nation’s capital nearly washed away seven Workforcestaffers — including me — crammed into our Washington bureau chief’s two-door hatchback on our way back from dinner.

The second: soccer’s World Cup tournament, which was blaring live from Germany on several TVs in our makeshift Workforce newsroom in a D.C. hotel suite as we assembled our daily conference show publications.

Monsoonal June rains could again pour down on SHRM’s annual event, which is in Orlando, Florida, for this year’s annual edition. And while the rain served as a very moist backdrop to the conference in 2006, I remember watching the World Cup deal with troubling dark clouds of its own.

Racism in the workplace — whether on the field or behind a corporation’s glass doors — is an issue that can’t be tolerated any longer.

Racism gripped European soccer for much of the year leading up to the ’06 World Cup. Actually, racism was as prevalent in European soccer stadiums as corner kicks and yellow cards several years before that. Flags bearing swastikas were frequent sights in stadiums across Europe, the epicenter of world soccer; racist chants and objects rained down on players. And team management largely shrugged it off, making token enforcement efforts while contending that it was part of a new era of fans intimidating opposing players.

Such ugly images beaming beyond the soccer pitch and into homes across the globe further tarnished the sport’s reputation as a hotbed for hooliganism to the point where FIFA, the international soccer governing body, and other organizations finally took a long overdue public stand condemning racism. Back in our little newsroom, we watched as famous athletes and world leaders made proclamations. “No to Racism” banners were unfurled during pre-match ceremonies, and patches touting respect and fair play adorned the jerseys of all 32 national teams in the tournament.

It should have been the beginning of the end of racism in soccer, and indeed in all of sports.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

Unfortunately, World Cup 2006 did not runneth over with momentum to quash racism in its sport. It slowed to a trickle and has since virtually dried up.

What has recently unfolded in the world of sports eight years later can be summarized in four words: same old, same old. In the U.S., the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers were plunged into turmoil after owner Donald Sterling spewed racist remarks in a recorded conversation that incited a firestorm of controversy among fans, players, advertisers, league executives and fellow owners, and ultimately led to his lifetime ouster from the sport.

It’s also apparent that many club owners in soccer have done little to curb the racism that still runs rampant through European stadiums. In a gesture so blatantly absurd, Barcelona defender Dani Alves reached a point that rather than continue to ignore the taunts and objects hurled at him, the Brazilian international star instead opted to peel a banana that landed at his feet and eat it.

While Alves was widely lauded for his reaction, it speaks to the immunity some people must develop to deal with constant racist abuse. And if sports indeed mirror society, then Alves’ reaction is no microcosm of the world around him. It’s a “macrocosm” of something deeply sinister that transcends the playing field and seeps out from behind the doors of much more private professional settings.

Which is perhaps where international soccer and SHRM could cross paths again. While no sessions at this year’s SHRM conference directly address racism in the workplace, there are several talks that focus on discrimination and a couple of more on bias, as well as one on diversity and inclusion. Hopefully the speakers and attendees will take the time to confront racism at work as well.

Racism in the workplace — whether on the field or behind a corporation’s glass doors — is an issue that can’t be tolerated any longer. Should SHRM attendees happen to catch one of the World Cup matches and see a “Just Say No to Racism” banner or a patch on Alves’ No. 2 Brazilian jersey, perhaps they will pause for a moment and realize that despite the public proclamations, racism isn’t isolated to the sports arena. Athletes are workers, too, and no employee should have to eat a banana just to make a point about intolerable workplace conditions.

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