Joanne O’Riordan: If you didn’t feel any form of activism spark, you’re possibly dead inside
The recent shooting of Jacob Blake brought an incredible response from US athletes
Washington Mystics players each wear white T-shirts with seven bullets on the back protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Photograph: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
We’ve said it before, and we’ll repeat it – sports and politics mix. The problem is that sport and whatever politics you’re opposed to does not mix. The recent shooting of Jacob Blake reignited the flames of racial inequality that exist in the world today.
The Milwaukee Bucks were the first to go on strike effectively, and were followed by all teams in NBA playoffs. The WNBA bubble followed quickly, and games across the MLB and MLS were also cancelled.
There were many symbolic and memorable moments. If anyone didn’t see the Washington Mystics arrive to their postponed game wearing white T-shirts spelling Blake’s name with seven bullet wounds and didn’t feel any form of activism spark, you’re possibly dead inside.
WNBA players have continued to speak out
But sport and black athletes have a great history. Your favourite sport would be nothing without black athletes. In America alone, without the negro leagues, we wouldn’t have night baseball or batting helmets or aggressive base stealing. Black players made baseball fun, pushing against the structured game since the 1940s.
Sixty-eight per cent of the NFL is black, and, two of the most innovative quarterbacks to play the game, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, are black. Due to positional segregation, generated from the idea that black players are not as intelligent but are just physically gifted, they are underrepresented at the decision making positions and overrepresented at defence and offensive line. They make up the backbone of our favourite teams with less recognition and less money.
The NBA is 74.4 per cent black, and the most notable names, from Lebron to Kawhi, are black. In the 1950s and 60s, black payers took the rigid and boring game and made it into the dynamic, exciting sport it is today. Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson are all players who transformed the game and our culture through it.
Some 83 per cent of WNBPA members are persons of colour while 67 per cent are black. These players have revolutionised basketball on the court and changed our whole perception of athletes and activism. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, criminal justice reform, LGBTQ support, women’s pay inequity, voter registration, improvements for mothers in the workplace, WNBA players have continued to speak out.
With such a diverse population, Ballyhaunis GAA has an incredibly diverse GAA club, with some breaking into the adults’ team
The coloured hockey league in the 1890s-1930s was the first hockey league to allow the goaltender to leave his feet to get the puck. In 1906, Eddie Martin, a black player, became the first to ever use a slapshot, possibly the most iconic part of hockey. Now, there are only 43 black players in the NHL.
Outside of America, in 2018, 12 out of the 23 players of the World Cup champions, France, more than half, were black. A similar number of players in Liverpool, current Premier League champions, are black. From Pele to Ronaldinho to Kylian Mbappé, black players have redefined and revolutionised the sport.
While the USWNT and NWSL lag behind in terms of diversity and inclusion (the NWSL’s percentage of black players is roughly 17 per cent), the few black players in the NWSL have unified under a union, set up by Midge Purce, who has repeatedly stated in interviews how disjointed and fragmented the NWSL players are when it comes to, not even racial justice reform, but actual racism itself.
In Ireland, according to the 2016 Census, 1.4 per cent of the population identifies as black, while people who identify under the Asia cohort is 2.1 per cent. And yet, those who are in power and commanding our teams, the diversity and inclusion rate doesn’t necessarily reflect that.
The truth of the matter is, black athletes make up the backbone of the sports industry
Sure, we had the infamous quartet of Molly Scott, Gina Akpe-Moses, Ciara Neville and Patience Jumbo-Gula, who won silver at the World Under-20 Championship in Finland two years ago, who were national heroes. Nadia Power, who captured a European under 23 800m in 2019 and Irish National Senior 800m Indoor 2020, is another example.
Across the GAA, we saw on AIB’s The Toughest, how integration and unity provided Ballyhaunis GAA club underage teams with the players to keep competitive. With such a diverse population (according to the 2016 Census, non-Irish nationals made up 42 per cent of the population), Ballyhaunis GAA has an incredibly diverse GAA club, with some breaking into the adults’ team.
There are a few intercounty examples too like Seán Óg Ó hAilpín of Cork, Lee Chin of Wexford and Boidu Sayeh of Westmeath. Watching Kerry’s football championships, there were three black players, representing Killarney Legion, An Ghaeltacht and Na Gael. Every single one of them suffers from racial abuse. The 18-year-old Antrim star Lara Dahunsi is one of very few non-white ladies footballers.
The truth of the matter is, black athletes make up the backbone of the sports industry and yet they are rarely represented in management, coaching, or ownership. While other countries, including ourselves here in Ireland, have a long way to go in terms of welcoming new players across the board, we must understand that black athletes can’t be silenced while putting up with everyday racism.