Racism remains a perennial problem in Irish sport
Simon Zebo just the latest to shine a spotlight on an unpleasant fact of Irish sporting life
Simon Zebo: Racing 92 star said he hoped he had not heard what he thought he heard from some Ulster rugby supporters at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
When Cyrus Christie read about calls to lynch him on social media and others on Twitter urging him to go play for Jamaica, there was no upside.
Christie had scored an own goal as Ireland slumped to a 5-1 loss at the Aviva Stadium in their World Cup play-off with Denmark in November 2017. The goal was a red herring. Racism never needs an excuse.
Racing 92 winger Simon Zebo has not specified what was allegedly said to him by some person or persons in the Ulster crowd last weekend in Belfast. But again it would be a mistake to look for reasons.
Gloating at Ulster’s Michael Lowry when he scored a try in their first meeting in Toulouse, was, at least in the public eye, a skewed rationale about what sparked it. Look no further than Zebo being part Afro-Martiniquais.
In 2012 the GAA star Lee Chin spoke out about enduring racist abuse on the pitch. Two footballers with Wexford’s Duffry Rovers were handed suspensions after they were found to have slung racial epithets at the Faythe Harriers star during a club game.
They were not the first slurs he had suffered. Like Jason Sherlock, Sean Óg Ó hAilpín, or Paul McGrath, Chin just needed to be talented and look different.
“I’ve been putting up with this kind of abuse for my entire life,” he said.
Sherlock, a kind of veteran warrior and a faithful barometer of Irish sport’s ongoing relationship with multi-ethnicity chimed in.
“There are certain boundaries in sport, and racism is one of them,” said the former Dublin footballer.
Chris Hughton walked a similar path over a decade before Sherlock. The Irish defender under Jack Charlton was raised on a diet of abuse. Accepting hatred was seen as part of his job spec as a black player. Then it came from the terraces.
“Those were also the days where the perception of black players was that,” ‘they can play on the wing, and they’re really quick, but they’re not captaincy or organisation material,’ Hughton told The Irish Times in 2017.
“Even now it’s about getting away from that myth to the exact opposite.”
In 2017 two out of 92 managers in English league football were non-white, while 25 per cent of players from the four divisions were from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. That put the number of white managers at 97 per cent.
Now a large part of the problem has moved away from the stadia cameras. But racism has mobility. It emerges again through people’s use of phones, invented twitter names and bogus accounts.
“When I was growing up you could hear the monkey chanting coming through the television,” says Garrett Mullan of Show Racism the Red Card.
“Ten years later it wasn’t happening. Why? In England they introduced football specific legislation and after Hillsborough they had to reconstruct stadiums so the environment changed within the grounds but racism remained an issue.
“It doesn’t necessarily happen on the terrace or in Aviva Stadium. In Ireland booing black players from other countries doesn’t really happen. At an individual level, social media offers a whole new platform and internet companies don’t take any responsibility for it.”
Abdul Abdullah points to ignorance and poor education as root causes. The 24-year-old of Kenyan background used to play for South Dublin Football Academy Pro, a club that competed in the Leinster Senior League.
“I was playing in Crumlin,” he says. “I had the ball, just trying to waste time. I had it in the corner and this guy came over and tackled me. The referee gave a free kick. Then the player called me a nigger. The referee was standing there beside me. I said ‘did you not hear that?’ He started to run away, you know pretending he didn’t hear anything.
“Then one of his own teammates actually came over and said to the player ‘man you can’t be saying that. Don’t say that to him’. Stood up for me, which was surprising. Some of it is ignorance. What they hear at home, they say on the street.”
Pick a year in Ireland. Pick a month. Pick a sport. Before Christmas, Kilmacud Crokes’ Craig Dias said he has encountered racism twice as a footballer. Twice too often.
In December 2012, Crossmaglen Rangers player Aaron Cunningham alleged he was racially abused by two Kilcoo players in the Ulster club championship.
In 2014, football. Shamrock Rovers star Eamon Zayed spoke about his day-to-day accommodation of abuse. Born to a Libyan father and an Irish mother, it began at school and continued into adulthood.
“The first instance I can remember was when I was around seven or eight. I was playing for my local team Broadford Rovers and we had a match against Stella Maris out in Ballymun,” said Zayed.
“I was quite tall and there was a smaller lad marking me. There was a man on the sidelines shouting racist abuse at me. And not long after he was saying it to me, the young lad who was marking me started saying the exact same thing. After the game, the young lad ran over to the older lad and I realised that they were father and son.”
People are not born racists. They learn to be. But Abdullah thinks the climate in Ireland is improving. Despite the postings about Christie being obscene, people are learning not to be. It is fraught with difficulty.
Ulster are not a racist organisation. But their experience of the problem shows how complex it is to conduct an investigation and to try to narrow a section of several thousand fans down to one or two offenders.
In 2007 Newport Gwent Dragons claimed two of their non-white players, Welsh internationals Colin Charvis and Aled Brew, were singled out for racial abuse.
The then chairman of the Ulster Rugby Supporters Club, Iain Campbell, who was standing in the section singled out for blame, told local media that he was “hurt and staggered” by what he described as “wholly unjust” allegations.
According to Mr Campbell, the source of the misunderstanding was the word “kicker” as the crowd chanted “dodgy, dodgy, kicker”.
Ulster claimed there was a lack of evidence. But the Dragons team and management stood firmly behind their two players.
In a recent Irish survey which 135 volunteers completed, 63 per cent replied that they had witnessed or experienced racism in Irish football over various levels. In the same survey 37 per cent said they had not.
Reporting has been a problematic area. But it only really blows up when a figure like Zebo makes it known. In that continuing issue, it hasn’t been lost on people that his nickname Django, a black slave from a Quentin Tarantino movie, is unsuitable.
Why? Because of racism’s nature, it is not always visible.