Ken Early: It’s time for all sports to jettison racist fans

Premier League, Nascar and NFL no longer worried about losing 'traditional fanbase'

Nascar driver Bubba Wallace’s car sporting a Black Lives Matter logo at a race in Martinsville, Virginia last Wednesday.   Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

Nascar driver Bubba Wallace’s car sporting a Black Lives Matter logo at a race in Martinsville, Virginia last Wednesday. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

 

England were meant to kick off their Euro 2020 campaign at Wembley on Sunday afternoon. The showdown with Croatia will have to wait for next year’s rescheduled championships, and yet the familiar chants resounded in the streets and squares of the English capital.

Close your eyes and you could almost imagine you were there in the Croatia game’s beery aftermath. “Engerland, Engerland, Engerland” – of course. “Ten German Bombers” – that’s an England tournament standard. “We want our country back” – hmm . . . it’s beginning to sound like Gareth Southgate’s boys may not have got the result they wanted.

Still, the terrace influence on this crowd of what the Metro newspaper chose to describe as “anti-anti-fascist” protesters was plain to hear. They were instantly recognisable as the England away crowd, and they would not be denied their day in the sun. In the absence of an actual England game to provide a focal point, St George’s expeditionary force simply converged on central London and, on the vague pretext of opposing a radical left assault on the English national memory, proceeded to do what came naturally. There were arguments over some details of doctrine, such as whether All Lives Matter or White Lives Matter was the correct slogan to rally behind, but on the essential points there was general agreement: No Surrender; We Want Our Country Back; Winston Churchill, He’s One of Our Own.

Meanwhile, the Premier League is poised to return this week, and, for the first 12 matches, players will have “Black Lives Matter” on the back of their shirts where their names usually are. The initiative, which will see players continue to display Black Lives Matter logos on their kit until the end of the season, comes after the League agreed to a request from the Players Together group, led by team captains including Troy Deeney, Séamus Coleman and Héctor Bellerín.

Football Lads

It looks, then, as though a gap has appeared between the elite end of the game, as represented by the players and administrators, and a section of the traditional fanbase, the self-styled Football Lads who like to spend the weekend throwing bottles, trampling over picnics and defending the honour of long-dead imperialists.

On both sides of the Atlantic it has been a week of setbacks for the Shut Up and Dribble camp

It feels as though these Lads are much more eager to embrace their status as Football than football is to embrace them back. Certainly, it’s evident that the Premier League is no longer worried about losing them as customers. It has long been the league’s policy that political expressions of any kind are to be avoided because they end up annoying some segment of the market and being bad for business. But, like several other major sports organisations over the last couple of weeks, the Premier League now seems to have decided that neutrality is no longer an option.

One suspects the Football Lads will soon be screaming about the need to keep politics out of football, as their spiritual brethren in the United States have been doing for years. On both sides of the Atlantic it has been a week of setbacks for the Shut Up and Dribble camp.

First the NFL commissioner announced that the league had been “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier”, in a statement that most read as opening the way for the return of political demonstrations like the kneeling protests against police brutality instigated by Colin Kaepernick in 2016.

Then the board of directors of US Soccer voted to repeal a rule that required players to stand during the national anthem, a policy it had adopted in 2017, after Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the anthem in support of Kaepernick’s campaign, drawing furious criticism from conservatives. Naturally, the decision to repeal drew furious criticism from conservatives. Republican congressman Matt Gaetz leapt aboard the attention bandwagon, declaring that he would prefer the US had no soccer team rather than a traitorous one that disrespected the flag. “I won’t be watching much anymore!” tweeted US president Donald Trump.

Confederate

You could say it is easy for US Soccer to alienate viewers like Gaetz and Trump, who were clearly never watching in the first place. Perhaps more difficult was Nascar’s decision last Wednesday to ban the Confederate battle flag from all its events and properties. In 2015, a white supremacist gunman killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and Nascar had asked fans then to stop displaying the Confederate flag at its races; the request was largely ignored. It’s clear, then, that a unilateral outright ban would likely anger many in the sport’s traditional fanbase in the conservative South.

Yet Nascar has concluded that there is no longer any point in trying to appease the kind of fans who feel like racing is no fun unless you also get to wave the flag of the slave states.

In truth Nascar has been moving in this direction for a long time. Every time it announces some change or reform – be that stricter safety regulations, changes to the competition format to make it more TV-friendly, or changes to the race schedule to bring in new big-city venues at the expense of older, established speedways – the traditional fanbase complains the sport is going to the dogs and some swear never to watch it again.

Years ago Nascar decided that it could not pander to this fanbase forever, that it would instead seek to grow and diversify. Whether that effort will ultimately be successful remains to be seen, but at least it is going to try. For Nascar, as for many other sports, the commercial and the moral logics are for once in agreement: there’s no future in being on the wrong side of history.

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