From Kirkstall to Keyboard: the stain of racism

Wednesday 20 June 1984, a few weeks past my tenth birthday and a warm early summer day in Leeds. On that afternoon, I first witnessed the crudest racial abuse from a crowd to players, one of whom was my father. Nearly thirty-seven years later, the fact that major sporting institutions have boycotted social media this weekend tells you everything you need to know about the continued putrid presence of racism in society and sport. In my case, from Kirkstall to Keyboard: the stain of racism very much continues in sport.

It should be a great memory

I should remember the day for all the right reasons. It turned out to be a dramatic Benson & Hedges Cup Semi-Final in which Warwickshire prevailed by three runs, this in a time when a trip to Lord’s for either of the domestic one-day finals was a huge deal for club, players and supporters.

Moreover, my father had batted beautifully that morning and early afternoon, his 85 setting the platform for an imposing Warwickshire total of 276. In the main, as far as I can remember, the home crowd seemed fairly appreciative of the brilliant batting from the visitors, with Geoff Humpage among the other Warwickshire batsman to shine.

Great cricket, the Bears off to Lord’s, my dad in his pomp, and a day off school… all reasons why this day should be memorable. 

The stain of racism on our society

It was in the mid-late afternoon that I noticed a distinct unease among the group of people with whom I was sitting, a group consisting of mum, other Warwickshire family members and a small group of supporters. We were sat in the stand close to the Old Pavillion at Headingley with the football stand to our left and the old players changing room to the right.

By this time, Warwickshire were in the field and Yorkshire were mounting their charge in pursuit of 277 to reach the Lord’s final. It was at this point, and mainly to the right beyond the changing room and around the area that the ground becomes the Kirkstall Lane end, that I could hear noises that I couldn’t really make out, certainly noises that I’d not heard before and which I could only describe as grunts.

Fielding in front of that particular section was Gladstone Small, a Warwickshire and England bowler of Caribbean heritage. A few overs later, it was my dad who found himself retrieving a ball from that area of the ground when the noises again started.

Those noises were, of course, the vile, crude monkey chants denigrating the skin colour of both dad and Gladstone.

Uncomfortable questions

To this day, I can’t imagine the emotions of my parents, my dad on the receiving end  of that abuse and mum having to do her own fielding, that of questions from a curious son asking what was happening here. I can’t empathise with the horror, anger and, likely, indirect guilt of the majority of white people around us who knew what was happening and were seemingly powerless to intervene.

The word ‘why’ was what kept on coming out of my mouth. What had dad or Gladstone done to these people? If it were Edgbaston, someone would have been able to take me home and if it were an international game we would have gone back to the hotel. It was neither and there was nowhere to go. While this continued, we would have to watch it.

I’m not sure I cried at any point, I just sat quizzically and transfixed, a ten-year old totally unprepared for what was happening in front of his eyes. I just tried to focus on the cricket, the only thing I could understand.

Not just a Yorkshire thing

We never did talk about that incident as a family. I’m not really sure what we would have said. I know, for sure, that dad endured far worse in West Indies teams touring Australia, among others. Besides, I was pretty ‘racially aware’ as a small child who had spent time in South Africa.

Nobody even really batted an eyelid when I said I wanted to go Yorkshire in 1985 to watch Warwickshire and I didn’t really notice the fact that one of dad’s friends ‘took me for a walk’ as the bars got busier and dad, Asif Din and Gladstone all found themselves, at some point, fielding on the boundary at Scarborough.

It’s easy to point the finger at Yorkshire – there have been recent allegations around race relations at the club and they famously had a rule barring overseas players from playing for the club.

However, it is too crude to associate the actions of a small minority with the majority of good people involved with the club. Some of my best mates in cricket are ‘Yorkies’ and I hold no malice to either club or county.

Besides, I would soon be going bananas for different reasons.

Bananas on Merseyside

I’ve often written about my love affair with Liverpool Football Club. Other than brief cameos from Howard Gayle, the early affair was typically in monochrome (white monochrome!) until the arrival of John Barnes in 1987.

Before long, he had become a Kop hero and is, to this day, regarded as a modern club legend. Two early instances, however, left an indelible mark on me for reasons beyond football; they were both in Merseyside Derbies, and both games at which the young me was present.

In both matches, I needed no reintroduction to the monkey chant and, even as a thirteen-year old, I understood the ‘Everton are white’ chant.

I absolutely needed no introduction to why it is so disgraceful, and remains sadly symbolic, that John Barnes, one of my sporting heroes had to back-heel a banana off the playing area at Goodison Park during a Merseyside Derby in January 1988.

The latter was an occasion where there were tears.

Image from Getty Media Library, taken from BBC Sport

Am I surprised at anything?

I want to say I’m surprised that we’re still having this conversation some thirty plus years on, but I’m not.

Societally, we’ve never looked ourselves in the mirror and honestly confronted all of the issues around race.

It’s too easy to say that it’s just a minority, that things have improved over the years. Both statements may be true but neither change the fact that racism still exists at large in our society.

Too often, disparaging insults are masked as throwaway comments, and criminally (no pun intended), too many incidents of discrimination are not reported because minority ethnic communities have no faith that anything will be done by the powers that be.

For me, the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was a whitewash denying the issues which clearly exist. Data does not lie and there is enough data around black and minority communities in the criminal justice and medical systems alone to horrify anyone, this before we look at income, jobs, living conditions.

And the stain of racism in sport?

Sadly, this social media action is not going to address the full issue.

First and foremost, I agree that the racial abuse of non-white sporting stars MUST STOP and that if this boycott challenges the Social Media giants to use the technology available to find the perpetrators, then it is a start. I am not against the action in itself.

However, using football as a microcosm, racism is as institutionalised in sport as in wider society. Here are some simple questions.

  1. Where are the black or non-white managers and coaches in our sports? Almost non-existent
  2. Where are the black or non-white execs in our sports? Almost non-existent 
  3. Where are the black or non-white supporters in our sports? Getting smaller in number as the execs in question two hike prices and make it unattainable for most working class households

So whilst the clubs can do their PR show of a social media blackout, let me be quite clear that it is not good enough in itself and that it is bullshit if they think it solves the problem of racism in sport.

And the Keyboard Warriors

Digital forensics are not the sole domain of television crime drama. The Social Media giants have the technology to lead us to a high proportion of the cowards sat at their phones or desktops abusing people online. However, beyond sporting institutions blacking-out for a few days, this requires government and lawmakers to make these companies accountable for how we are able to access and act on that data.

The one thing we can all agree on is that the technology and social media giants seems to wield too much influence and that there needs to be a global solution to this. It’s not just about sport here but racism in society as a whole, that is unless you consider the recent US elections as sport.

Racial abuse of any kind is vile and the keyboard cowards should be dealt with in the strongest manner available to the law.

In Conclusion

Gladstone Small bowling for Warwickshire / Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson/Allsport UK
Gladstone Small bowling for Warwickshire / Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson/Allsport UK
My father batting at Edgbaston for Warwickshire, his home for close to twenty years.

Players like Gladstone and my dad were very much loved by supporters of Warwickshire County Cricket Club and remain so. Warwickshire has been a home to many cricketing greats from across the globe, as have many other counties.

Beyond that lies a challenge for both sport and society. Sport has always been a massive cultural influencer. As a young man, I saw white friends who wanted to be Viv Richards, John Barnes and, the greatest of all, Muhammad Ali, among others.

The issue is that these sporting icons are described as transcending race; this suggests that their greatness goes beyond race which, in itself, makes it too easy for their race to become secondary.

Sport must take the lead in changing society but that means that it must take a long hard inward look and cleanse its whole self. It’s not just about equality in social media and on the field, but in the corridors of influence.

Until that happens, we will continue to be undermined by the keyboard warrior abusing players in sports where governing bodies are not doing anything near enough to be a positive force for change.

It’s been 37 years from Kirkstall Lane to the Keyboard Warriors and the stain of racism blights our society and sport as it always did. And that is a sad reflection on us all.

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