A recent study released by RunRepeat revealed the extent of racial bias in English football commentary. Lighter-skinned players are often praised for their intelligence and labeled as magicians or highlighted for their work ethic. Darker-skinned players are referenced as ‘beasts’ and their ability limited to athletic attributes or being a pace and power merchants.
Surprised? Surely not, the ramifications of structural racism and racial bias in sport is as clear as day. After reading the report I thought about all my experiences involving racial bias. But 7/8 years ago, ‘inadequate’ was the feeling I most identified with.
Sport so often is a microcosm of society. Growing up in a predominantly black town, and attending the prestigious Dale College Primary School you’re trapped in a bubble. Enjoying strands of society you are welcomed and comfortable in, with people who look like you. Dale is where I fell in love with rugby and sport in general.
There are a couple of rituals rooted in my mind that put a smile on my face to this day. Meeting my best friends on a sunny Saturday morning to play a game of rugby. Having my father greet me with a smile, boerie roll and a powerade, just after he tells me how proud of me he is. The excitement of sitting in the stands watching the 1st XV run about, while singing your heart out. Jumping around when someone scores a try, the togetherness of being arm in arm with the guy next to you and perfect harmonization of igwijo.
When I wasn’t at school, I was on the street playing touch rugby or street cricket. I knew I wasn’t too bad of a rugby player. It wasn’t until I moved to a predominantly white school that I started to seriously doubt my ability. To be honest I never really recovered. In a sporting context, I believe that some structural norms in South Africa go back generations and still favour a certain demographic.
Black players are often moved to the wing to provide the best platform for their ‘pace and power’. However, I was far from that. I wasn’t the quickest or the strongest but I had vision. I could pass a rugby ball both ways and had a mean sidestep. After my growth spurt, I was even asked to move to lock position to fit another player in my position. At the time, I thought to myself “wow, these guys just don’t rate me” or “I guess I’m not good enough” but I know now… I was.
He might not know it, but the coach that had the biggest impact on my rugby was Oageng Mpipi. Someone who I am still friends with to this day. He told me I had to persevere and believe in myself. I pushed myself to finish playing, despite numerous setbacks. These incidents along with others that many black people have been speaking up about in sport recently, are stark illustrations of how racial bias can affect players.
I have chosen to share my story, but I could’ve shared hundreds. As recently as 2019, I stood on a rugby field playing club rugby and looked and observed. How many people look like me? Or, more jarringly, how many don’t? I have worked in national school cricket festivals and watched some rugby games and wondered; why when teams are from the most diverse provinces in the country are the crowds and players so white? Where are the black parents under the gazebos watching their kids? The disparity in representation between what we see on the street against what we see on the field is astonishing.
Aligning with the racial bias, there is a notion in South African sport that black players, coaches, and administration need to be developed and tried despite holding the prerequisite qualifications. Everyone should be welcome. We’re told everyone is welcome to apply. And yet, just like in other spaces in society, black representation behind the scenes is lacking. The lack of representation is almost similar to seeing a black lives matter sign in a gentrified neighborhood, a slap in the face.
With that being said, there are changes being made. I have seen first hand black people developing and rising through the ranks in sport. Thus converting myself into a sponge and learning from their experiences and taking in all their advice. Whilst in sport, many people try to develop methodologies to reduce and confine transformation to limit it’s potential. There has been an effort to implement the National sport and Recreation Plan and transform our core values as a nation.
Sport is for all. Everyone needs to know that it is for all, and people should bear in mind the work is needed to make this space equal for all.