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Discrimination and inequality in sports

| January 3, 2015

The phenomenon of discrimination in sports is not as old as the conflict of racism in the society (Spracklen, Hylton & Long, 2006). Nonetheless, inequality and discrimination continue to dominate in sporting activities in the UK. Flintoff, Long & Hylton (2005) identified sports grounds as the largest public arena in which racism still dominates. It is against this background that the phenomenon of inequality and discrimination in sports has led to a wide spread debate within the media, in the wider sports community and amongst policy makers.

Racism is a vice that pervades all contemporary culture in Britain, with no exception to sports (Hylton, 2005). A tranche of studies has explored on the nature and the extent to which racism has become more prevalent in British sports. Generally, a bulk of attention has been directed at the professional soccer fans whilst other studies have cited racism at the grass roots especially among the players, coaches and spectators. On the part of the government, there is a presumption that sport promotes integration and social inclusion. Hence the perceived role of sports as observed by Carrington & Learnan (1982) during the early 1980’s is once again on the agenda as policy makers grapple with wider issues of racism, discrimination, social exclusion and inequalities.
In Britain, discrimination and subsequent inequality has been around for quite a long time. Whilst recognizing that racist activity in sports has been a feature of the 1970’s and 1980’s, racism within the football arena has historically been tied to the nature of the British society, specifically the racist and colonialist past (Hylton & Bramham, 2007). According to Hylton (2009) racism by virtue of its imperialist phase, is constitutive of what has grown to be the ‘British way of life’. It should however be noted that racism in sports in not only confined to Britain. Abuse of black and ethnic minority players has disfigured sports, football in particular, in most European countries including Germany, Spain, Belgium, France and Italy (Carrington & McDonald, 2008).
However, significant progress has been made by the UK government to stamp out this menace. At an event on ‘Multiculturalism and integration’ hosted by Runnymede Trust, Tony Blair-the former British Prime minister was noted saying that racism, for the most part, had been kicked out of sports (Carrington & McDonald, 2008). In his liberating speech, the former Prime Minister stated that stupid stereotypes and offensive remarks had been driven out of public conversation and that basic courtesies had been extended to all the people regardless of their racial backgrounds (Carrington & McDonald, 2008).
In an introductory survey regarding sport, national identity and race within the British Academy, Carrington (2004) claim that significant progress had been made in addressing inequality and discrimination in British sports since the ‘intellectual lacuna’ of the 1990’s. In particular, the work of (Carington & McDonald, 2001), Garland and Rowe (2001), Ismond (2003) and Williams (2001) has established a strong epistemological tradition on ethnicity, diversity and race in British sports. Government agency led intervention against racist views and comments in British sports and High profile antiracism campaigns like the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign represent but a few of the important progress made (Carrington & McDonald, 2008).
Further, Equality Standards have been developed in British sports by public governing bodies in collaboration with national sports equity organizations campaigning for diversity and greater equality in sports. Additionally, equality & diversity strategy and a Race Equality Scheme have been developed by UK sport in a move towards establishing equality principles and policies within the British sports. For Carrington (2004), this important progress has been useful in effecting social policy changes in the area of racial equality within the sport’s governing bodies in Britain.
Research has also shown that racism amongst the supporters and offending remarks directed at the black players in UK, both of which flourished in the 70’s and 80’s, have steeply declined in the recent years. However, a study by Crabbe (2004) notes that the underlying negative feelings, stereotypes and abusive comments directed at the black players appear to still exist. Despite important progress which has been made, it is still the case that discrimination and inequalities continue to structure the reality of sports for blacks and ethnic minorities (Carrington & McDonald, 2008).
Although stereotyping and racism in professional sports have reduced in the recent past, with respect to the blacks, some degree of discrimination and stereotyping still remains, though far more subtle than was in the past (Long & Hylton, 2002). Despite tremendous strides by the blacks in many pro sports, it is striking to note that their involvement and participation in sports is still constrained by sexist, racist and homophobic comments. Whilst addressing stereotypical perceptions in sports, Denham et al (2002), suggested these standard conceptions
a) The white athletes always get praised for their perceived intellect and leadership capacity
b) While the black athletes are praised because they are perceived as naturally talented.
Other researchers have displayed similar findings, describing the aforementioned points in juxtaposed fashion, suggesting that whites are not seen to be athletic while the blacks are seen to lack the requisite intellect and leadership skills. Denham (2002), focused on the aforementioned stereotypes in the 2002 sports commentary. The findings amongst the sport commentators were that black athletes were perceived to be more athletic while the white athletes were expected to have an innate ability to overcoming odds to accomplish their athletic stature.
Perhaps echoing the findings obtained above, a research on the dearth of black managers, by Dr Jamie Cleland- a lecturer of sociology and Elllis Cashmore – a professor of sport, media and culture; revealed that 56% of those polled hold of the view that racism was more prevalent at the top of the football’s hierarchy (Hylton, 2009). Among the black and ethnic minority groups polled, 73% believed that racism was common at the top of the hierarchy (Hylton, 2009).
Most radically of all, over half of the black and minority ethnic fans called for a similar policy to Rooney’s rule in US, which stipulates that at least one minority candidate be included among those shortlisted for coaching and management jobs in the National Football league (Hylton, 2009). The report concluded that ‘institutional racism’ whereby people did not consciously discriminate against the minority groups but failed to challenge old stereotypes and racial assumptions was common in the management of football clubs in UK.
It is striking to note that in 2007, there were only two black managers out of the 92 league clubs in Britain (Hylton & Bramham, 2007). More surprisingly is the fact that, up to date, there are still only two black managers in all the leagues namely: Chris Powell, manager of Charlton Atheltic and Paul Ince, of Notts County (Gini, 2011). Clearly, the management of football is still overwhelmingly white dominated. From what can be discerned, racism is still prevalent in British sports.
In a survey conducted by the FA Premier League in 2001, it emerged that of the total sample of active top level fans, only 0.8% comprised of the Black British, figures way below that of the population at large (Flintoff, Long, & Hylton, 2005). Moreover, the black players accounted for between 13% and 15% of the professional footballers countrywide (Flintoff, Long, & Hylton, 2005). Even in areas with large ethnic minority populations, attendance to football matches among these minority groups was very low.
Strong attendance amongst these minority groups was common in clubs such as Arsenal and higher in parts of London, but weak attendance was evident in the North East regions and in Scotland (Flintoff, Long, & Hylton, 2005). Racial discrimination still remains prevalent to some extent in most professional clubs. Among the FA Premier League Fans polled, 27% reported witnessing some form of racial segregation and racist and homophobic comments directed against the black players at matches (Flintoff, Long, & Hylton, 2005). These figures tally with those obtained from a national survey conducted by the Football League in 2001.
More recently, the Football Association is yet to investigate alleged racist comments directed at the families of two black players of West Ham United by their fans, during the club’s league game against Manchester United on Saturday April 2011 (Hylton, 2011). Reports claim that after West Ham’s 4-2 defeat, some of the West Ham’s supporters were involved in a confrontation with the families of the two black players which resulted in racist comments. This shows that some form overt racism- which is more blatant and often involving offensive remarks and may take the form of public statements about the “inferiority” of other members of the minority and ethnic group (Spracklen, Hylton, & Long, 2006), still exist in sports.
The experience of all forms of racism and discrimination often result in the Asian and Black people participating in separate sporting activities from the whites. In a survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics on sporting activities and aspirations of the ethnic minority groups in England during 2007; the black Caribbean, Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi populations had their rates of participation in sports lower than those of the National average (Berthoud, 2008). Swimming, for instance, had a lower ranking in participation amongst most ethnic minorities. Similarly, the participation levels in walking amongst these minority groups were significantly below the average population.
Clearly, sports has become a medium for racial discrimination either through a racist culture which attaches itself to sports or through institutionalized racism. Despite official optimism that the menace is declining, it is still the case that racism continues to taint British sports both on and off the pitch.
Men and women often experience adverse effects due to their restrictive gender roles. However, globally, more women are disadvantaged by gender constructs which prevent them from accessing resources, realizing their rights and harnessing opportunities (Steve, 2010). The positive outcomes of sport for women’s empowerment and gender equality are constrained by gender based discrimination fueled by continuing stereotypes on women’s social role and their physical abilities. For example, Sport is generally considered a social and cultural process in which social constructions of masculinity and feminity play a key role. It is considered inappropriate for women to engage in sports and those who do are often perceived as ‘Masculine’.
Conversely, men who don’t participate in sports are often labeled ‘unmanly’. Women are thus segregated involuntarily into different sporting activities, competitions and events specifically targeted to women. Their access to leadership positions and decision making is constrained from the local to the international level. Clearly, the value placed on women’s sports is low hence resulting in scarce resources and unequal distribution of wages. In the media, for instance, women’s sports is not only marginalized but also presented differently in ways reflecting and reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Britain is very much shaped around leisure, sport in particular. The choice of sporting activity is largely influenced by gender and race. Globally, women are less frequently seen participating in sporting activities unlike their male counterparts. In Great Britain, a vast number of those participating in sports are mostly men. For example, in a figure generated by the household survey with regard to sports and leisure activities in Britain in 2002, it was noted that 15% of men had participated in cue sports compared to 4% of the women (Gini, 2011). In soccer, men comprised of 10% while women had a figure of 0.5% (Gini, 2011). It was also noted that more of men participated in cycling than women. Clearly, the proportion of men participating in sports in Great Britain is more than that of women. The gendered influence on sporting activities is evident from the above, since traditionally sport is associated with masculinity.
Research has also shown that women are generally under-represented in the decision making in almost all sporting institutions in the UK. A report by the Women’s Sports Foundation in 2005, on behalf of the UK sport, showed that women generally were under-represented in many sporting activities. From the study, it emerged that 19% of women took part in regular sporting activities compared to 24% of the men. Among the athletes, 41% of them represented women while the sports board and committee were made up of 29% women. Further, there were very few female role models unlike the men (Gini, 2011).
Certainly, gender based discrimination against women in sports remains a persistent problem. This is evident from the apparent negative portrayal of women athletes as well as in unequal representation of women in sport media. Additionally, women sporting events in the UK remain marginalized from the mainstream multi-billion dollar sport media industry. Although the local, national and international competition comprise of both the men’s and women’s events, men’s sports continue to invariably dominate media coverage, local and international attention (Flintoff, Long, & Hylton, 2005).
Addressing inequality in sports is thus vital if any progress is to be realized. Gender equality ensures that both men and women have equal access to opportunities and that they are able to exercise their rights. Given the important contribution of sports in promoting mental and physical wellbeing, it is necessary to ensure and maintain gender equality by promoting women’s involvement and participation in various sporting activities.
Gender mainstreaming should be ensured in all sports clubs and organizations. This means going beyond the notion that ‘sports is a masculine activity which is male dominated’. Increasing the participation of both girls and women in sport would challenge the gender stereotypes and discrimination, hence promoting gender equality. Additionally, women’s participation in sports can make significant contributions to community development and public life.
Equality and diversity in British sports has long been a major policy concern. The history of diversity and equality in the UK sport policy, practice and process, over the last decade, has been elucidated at length in the work of Oakley & Green (2001), Green (2004a) and Houlihan & White (2002) amongst others. All the above authors identified inequality and discrimination in sports as a major public policy concern. These studies suggest social inclusion, diversity and equality as central to sports policy. Given that, inequality and discrimination still continue to taint British sports, there is an imperative need to establish policy led equity approaches in managing inequality and developing diversity in sports.
It is disappointing to note that despite greater attention to inequality and discrimination in sports in the recent years, the progress towards creating equality is still constrained by racist and gendered stereotypes. The status of diversity in UK sport policy framework is not matched by an equivalent status in the way in which British spot is delivered and managed (Flintoff, Long, & Hylton, 2005). This calls for policy makers to embed these issues at the preliminary level in their policies and plans; and heighten their awareness when implementing the equality and diversity policy.
Contrary to the popular notion of sports as an arena largely free from racial discrimination and subsequent inequality, it is still the case that discrimination and inequalities continue to structure the reality of sports for blacks and ethnic minorities.
(2, 517 words)

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