Op-Ed: What sport can do to turn the page on racial inequality

11 Dec 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

Throughout 2020, sport has been reflecting on its role in prolonging racial inequality. Nicola Kemp, Editorial Director, Creativebrief looks at how the sports marketing industry can play a vital role in bringing about change.

In conversation with Dark Horses' Matt Readman, Professor of Sociology and Journalism Ben Carrington, and former footballer Michael Johnson as part of BITE LIVE 2020, she looks at some of the myths and problems that hold the industry back.

We have reached a pivot point in society where failing to address racist myths in sport is holding the entire industry back, leaving an entire generation of role models, leaders and sponsorship ambassadors on the bench. 

Stereotypes matter because they stop people from achieving their full potential. Across the sports marketing landscape, racist stereotypes have kept too many players from realising their full potential on and off the pitch. A state of play which must be urgently addressed. For, as Matt Readman, Head of Strategy at Dark Horses, explains: "If the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything this year, it’s that to make meaningful change it is no longer good enough to be ‘not racist’. We need to be ‘anti-racist’, actively combating racism all of the time."

Speaking at BITE LIVE 2020, Ben Carrington, Professor of Sociology and Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, explained the myth of Black success in sport, namely that it is “not due to hard work or perseverance or cognitive ability but the idea that Black people have a natural propensity to run faster, jump higher, punch harder.” This myth seeps into how people understand sport; it is, says Carrington, propagated by sport. And in turn, he believes, “advertising tends to promote highly racialized stereotypes.” It’s these stereotypes that can become internalised by people who view those adverts.

A generation of leaders, role models and ambassadors on the sidelines

These stereotypes have real world consequences as Michael Johnson, former professional footballer and current Specialist Coach for the England U21 football team explains. We see them play out in how Black players are positioned on the football pitch. Typically, they play in positions that require strength and speed. “The positions that are focused on creativity and intelligence are very rarely filled with Black players,” he adds.
This reliance on stereotyping characteristics in Black footballers is, Johnson believes, one of the key issues when it comes to those players then moving into leadership positions. Because, as he asks, “How do you go upstairs to a position when your traits are based on your power?” When there’s been no focus on your intelligence and leadership at a playing level, it makes it near impossible to step higher up the sporting food chain once you retire.
Johnson highlights some shocking statistics about the lack of diversity within the football industry: 33% of Black players play the game in England, but less than 4% hold managerial positions, while there are merely 2% in senior leadership positions. And, according to Johnson, “When you go into the boardroom, it’s non-existent.”
By being pigeonholed and stereotyped in your playing career, he believes, as a Black player your next step is more often than not out of the industry altogether. “You need to lean on your leadership skills which most people, as a Black player, don’t believe you have,” he explains. He points out that former England professional footballer Andy Cole had to go to a team at the bottom of the English professional pyramid “just to be given a chance to coach.” As a result, he adds, “England’s missed out on a generation of quality coaches.” 
A glacial pace of change
This missed opportunity is prevalent across the sporting landscape. Consider how little
sporting governing bodies have done to debunk their stale, male and pale reputation. The glacial speed of their approach to diversity and inclusion in rugby, for example, was underlined by the country’s first ever Black male Rugby Union captain for England Rugby - World Cup-winner Jason Robinson - calling out both the lack of acknowledgement of his achievements and his lack of involvement with the sporting body.

From basketball superstar LeBron James driving voter registration in the 2020 US Presidential Election, to footballing powerhouse Marcus Rashford teaching British politicians what leadership looks like, the sports marketing industry must address racist myths and bias head on, or they risk appearing as out of touch as the governing bodies. It’s a shift which starts with asking, ‘whose stories are we telling, who are we investing in, who are our ambassadors, who are we promoting as leaders and role models?’
For the truth is, as long as we maintain the status quo, we are at risk of missing out on a generation of sporting role models who are so much more multifaceted and influential than any one-dimensional stereotype of strength and sporting prowess. Telling different stories, as Dark Horses’ Readman, explains, “can inspire a new generation in a totally different way.” 

It’s time to turn the page.