Before England’s match against Bulgaria, striker Tammy Abraham announced that the English team were prepared to walk off the field if the players were racially abused by fans. Bulgaria was serving the second part of a two-match partial stadium ban for abuse in a previous game.
The match had to be halted twice due to racist chants, but England manager Gareth Southgate and the players decided to play it out. Afterwards, that decision not to walk off the field was the topic of much debate. One side said the players could have made a powerful statement by leaving. The other argued that walking off would have let the racists win. They claimed it was a greater show of strength that the players not only held their resolve, but went on to win the game.
Just imagine, they argued, what would the world look like if everyone did what racists wanted and walked away?
The idea that walking off the field would be a sign to racists that they have won is an interesting one. A world where bigots feel comfortable going to games to racially abuse players and make Nazi signs would be awful. As a thought exercise, I would like to sketch what that world might look like:
In such a world, a world that comes after racists feel emboldened by their victory, we can imagine such bigotry becomes commonplace in world football. The hate wouldn’t even be relegated to places like Bulgaria, but would spread to the big leagues and countries that see themselves as more civilized than the rest of the world. It would be so widespread and normal that almost every week we’d see another story of a player, regardless of talent level, being the victim of monkey chants, bananas, or other racial insults.
Generations and generations of players would come through the game, suffer racist abuse, and be powerless to combat it. And because the racists would have already won, there would be no one to protect their victims.
In a world where the racists have won, we would get to a point where bigotry not only goes unpunished — and in the rare cases that it is, the punishment would be so small it would be inconsequential — but the existence of hate would be denied. So, even when we see and hear incidents in which a player is being abused, the leaders of footballing institutions both locally and globally would deny the hateful nature of the incidents, arguing that the players who report them are exaggerating, complaining, or misinterpreting what the abuse is really about. Because fans heckle players all the time, racism would be argued as just another form of “banter.” People who get upset about practices like blackface would be seen as the real aggressors, because they would be disturbing the peace with their over-sensitivity.
At that point, when racism is running free, it wouldn’t be surprising to see players be abused everywhere, from social media to major publications, for everything from missing a chance at goal to their shopping habits.
But as we know, football is not isolated from society. It only reflects the problems outside of the stadiums. So if we imagine a world where the racists have won in the arenas, we have to extend that to them winning around the world.
In that world, we can envision the standard of living being lower for black people, since the system of racism would devalue them and ensure that their success is an exception, rather than provide them an equal chance at a good life. In this imaginary world, black people would be more likely to be stopped by police officers and arrested at an exponentially higher rate than other groups. They would be punished more severely even in early schooling, and plainly associated with criminality. That stigma, combined with barely-hidden institutional discrimination in such sectors as education, healthcare, housing, and the job market, would ensure black people are confined to the lower rungs of society.
If we are to relate this problem of institutional racism back to football, it would show itself in a lack of black coaches and officials in the governing bodies of a sport in which there’s a great population of black players. Racism would run so wild, that even on the field black players would be reduced to their physical attributes in discourse, because racism has determined they are animalistic. It’s amusing to think about, but a world where the racists have won would mean even the language of the game would be infected with stereotypes and denigrations.
In this imaginary world, abused players who leave the field wouldn’t be able to score a purely symbolic win over their abusers. Racism would grow so strong that abuse wouldn’t even be tied to the results of the game any more. Games would end, and racism would stay alive. Fans would come to the next game to abuse the players again. The signal that the racists have won wouldn’t be the players walking off the field, but that the racists felt comfortable enough to show up to the stadium and abuse players in the first place.
Of course, because the match and the momentary entertainment of football supersedes a fight for respect, we can’t have players walking off the field. That would send the message that the problems of humanity are greater than the sport. It would force both the governing bodies and the people in attendance to choose between accommodating bigotry and enjoying the beautiful game. A walk-off would be a protest, disruptive and aggravating. It would announce that this world, the imagined one where the racists have won, is not the world the players, and those who support them, want. It would say that if this world is not made better, then the game will come to a halt. Because the players have a right to dignity, and no sport or entertainment should be greater than that.
Thankfully, though, we don’t live in this imagined world where the racists have won. The match against Bulgaria wasn’t abandoned. England won handsomely. Many important people spoke out against the abuse afterwards, and everything should be fine for the foreseeable future.