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Reporting on racism: ‘There are days it feels as if we are getting somewhere’

Jonathan Liew, sports writer

Writing about racism is tiring and – if we’re going to be honest – not all that much fun. By definition, it’s an exploration of pain and suffering. We saw that when Azeem Rafiq spoke in parliament about the racism he had encountered in Yorkshire cricket. It entails spending a good deal of time with the very worst impulses of humanity. It requires trying to understand the mindset of people who have no interest in understanding you. We see that every time a rightwing politician or media outlet tries to justify racism under the deceitful banner of “anti-wokeness”.

This is doubly true in the case of sport, which for the most part is a place where we go to feel uplifted, perhaps even seek temporary refuge from the world and its complex, maddening problems. And so often in this job it’s impossible not to feel a little churlish. You know that thing you love? That you’ve loved ever since you were a child? That source of simple, happy, incorruptible memories? Turns out it’s actually morally bankrupt beyond measure!

Then there are the days when you feel like you might just be getting somewhere. An article that changes a few minds. A revelation or news story that forces the powerful to reflect. Or occasionally a moment that simply knocks you sideways. Perhaps one of the most quietly moving episodes of the sporting year came in an otherwise entirely forgettable pre-season friendly at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in August, when Bukayo Saka was introduced by Arsenal as a substitute.

As you will probably be aware, Saka missed the crucial penalty for England in the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley, and in the days afterwards was subjected to a vicious and sustained wave of racist abuse. Now, as he stepped on to enemy turf at the home of his club’s biggest rivals, the Tottenham fans cheered his every step: a show of solidarity and kinship across tribal lines that felt shocking in its defiance.

It was a gesture that said: actually, fuck the rivalry for a moment. Some things mean more. And you need to know that we know that. Every so often there are days when it feels like nobody is listening and nobody is learning, when there is precious little left to cling to. Well, cling to that.

Barney Ronay, chief sports writer

English cricket is never short of stories. The Ashes will dominate the sports news cycle either side of Christmas. This year’s T20 World Cup is a prelude to the joys of next year’s T20 World Cup, and to the 50-over World Cup the year after that. In the current rush to balance schedules, to gorge on stored-up TV rights deals, every year is World Cup year right now, every couple of months another step on the franchise carousel.

These are the headlines. But the real story of English cricket is, as so often, elsewhere. In the last few weeks, Rafiq’s refusal to walk away from his experience of institutionalised racist abuse at Yorkshire County Cricket Club has gone from a noise off on the sports pages to questions in parliament, reputation management in the Nike boardroom and a state of emergency at English cricket’s grandest county.

This story is just beginning. But we can promise that with the help and the input of readers we will continue to tell it in the pages of Guardian Sport, and to keep trying to push it forward to the next step.

Rafiq is a hero. His bravery lies not just in telling his story, but in being willing to tell it until people listen, and doing so even as his character is smeared and his motives questioned.

A group of people holding anti-racism banners including a childlooking at his own banner, which says 'Stump out racism' in colourful letters
Anti-racism protesters outside outside Yorkshire Cricket Club’s, Headingley. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

In the face of massed public pressure, there has been a sudden willingness to listen in high places. But one thing is certain. This isn’t even close to being over, or solved or packaged away, no matter how many reports or statements the England and Wales Cricket Board might throw at it, no matter how many layers of Yorkshire’s management are peeled away.

We still see entire sections of society underrepresented in the professional game, starved of opportunity, excluded by habit and structures, and often more or less invisible at management level. If Rafiq’s courage tells us one thing, it is that those with an investment in the status quo will respond only to public pressure. That is hopefully where Guardian journalism can have an impact.

Jacob Steinberg, football reporter

I was at the London Stadium to watch West Ham host Tottenham in the Premier League a few weeks ago. It can be a difficult fixture for a Jew to attend. Tottenham have often been the target of antisemitic taunts and I wasn’t particularly surprised when I heard a nearby West Ham fan launch into a chant of: “We’ll be running round Tottenham with our willies hanging out, singing I’ve got a foreskin, haven’t you …”

It was a jarring moment, a reminder that discrimination in football remains an issue despite repeated efforts to kick it out: and there was more to come when West Ham travelled to face Genk in the Europa League last month. The footage of supporters taunting a Jewish man on a plane to Belgium was another punch in the stomach.

Unfortunately, these incidents remain all too common, and 2021 has become something of a watershed for sport and racism. Last year, Kick It Out, football’s anti-discrimination charity, warned that a “shocking” increase in reports of racist and homophobic abuse in professional football was just the tip of the iceberg, and sadly it has become a part of our job as football reporters to ensure that the issue is covered properly, sensitively and extensively.

We have all experienced that sinking feeling while sitting in a press box – the moment when we realise that a section of supporters in the ground are aiming racial abuse at a young black footballer. It happened when England went to Budapest to face Hungary, but it is crucial to note that racism is not merely a problem in foreign countries: it was deflating for Gareth Southgate to have to devote part of his debrief with the media after the Euro 2020 final to talking about racism.

Long shot of England players, in white, and Italy players, in blue, on one knee around the centre circle
England and Italy take the knee before the Euro 2020 final at Wembley last year. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/AFP/Getty Images

But we have to talk about it. At the Guardian, it is a topic we continue to cover rigorously. In 2019 we published a wide-ranging report into the rise of racism in football, at grassroots level and in the professional game, and we explored the problem again earlier this year. In 2021, our columnists have written again and again about an issue that, far from going away, appears to becoming more entrenched.

We built up to England’s opening game at Euro 2020 against Croatia by interviewing Labour leader Keir Starmer about racism in football and we have heard from several figures inside and outside the game about discrimination, among them former players Lilian Thuram and Anton Ferdinand, and poet Benjamin Zephaniah. Chris Hughton spoke to us about the challenges faced by black managers and our award-winning podcast, Football Weekly, recently broadcast an interview with the former Liverpool and England winger John Barnes about his experiences of racism.

The hope is that persistent reporting will have a positive effect; that it will change attitudes in the stands and increase diversity at the top of the game. It is our duty to put pressure on authorities who have often seemed blase about the issue. It is no longer merely important that we keep talking and writing about racism in football. It is a moral obligation.

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