Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day in the United States. Officially, it is a day for all Americans to “reflect on the principles of racial equality and nonviolent social change espoused by Martin Luther King Jr.” That language is from the law signed by Ronald Reagan in 1983.
Cricket, like all institutions, has racism embedded in its past, its present, and — sadly, probably — its future.
It was, in its earliest forms, not just the sport enjoyed by a colonizing white Empire, it was also their weapon of colonization, used to subdue native cultures and teach them proper English gentlemanly pursuits. And so when the West Indies came to England in the 1970s and 1980s and pummeled their former masters at their own game, the symbolism was not lost on many.
Cricket is also the sport that made South Africa a test playing nation in the 1880s, only to suspend their status in 1970 when the true horrors of Apartheid came into the international light. And while most boards agreed to not travel to South Africa for matches, players still organized what were known as “rebel tours” of the country. Thumbing their noses at the ICC, their national boards, and even the United Nations. England, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Australia all participated in these tours. The players received bans and some had their careers effectively ended, but others were rewarded with captainships and long careers in the national side. Slaps on the wrist, in other words, for agreeing to play cricket in a nation that practiced institutionalized racial segregation for almost 50 years.
In the present day, the large scale racism of colonization and apartheid have, for now, disappeared into a recent past that we should try our best to collectively remember. But there is still racism in the game. It took, for example, until 2011 for the first Muslim, Usman Khawaja, to play for Australia at the international level, and there is still talk of the difficultly facing players of color in the Cricket Australia system. Which shouldn’t surprise too many, as Australian fans in Melbourne just had to be told, in two-thousand-god-damn-eight-teen, to cool it with the racist chants.
And then there are the little moments that remind us that racism is alive and well in cricket. Geoffrey Boycott — one of the cricketers who participated in a ‘rebel tour’ — and his “black face” comments, Dean Jones calling Hashim Amla a terrorist, and on and on and we’ll go, with no end in sight.
Are things getting better? Maybe. A little. But for me many of the punishments for racist behavior are too light, and while the ICC and the national boards talk a good game about zero tolerance and the like, most incidents — like the racial chants in Melbourne — are smoothed over and pushed aside, while silliness like ball tampering is punished with extreme prejudice. It’s almost as if the ICC is still afraid to touch the subject. Too many old racist white men on their boards? Maybe. Maybe not. But it certainly feels that way. I read a great article in The Guardian a few years back about how the Marylebone Cricket Club is killing cricket, as it caters solely to white upper class men, and tells us all that “cricket is an inward-looking and exclusive sport. It says to ethnic minorities and the working classes that they are not welcome.” The MCC owns Lord’s Cricket Ground, the hosting ground of the Cricket World Cup final this summer. So maybe we haven’t come that far after all.
Cricket is a global game, which is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to combatting racism. The optics of 11 white South Africans playing cricket against 11 black Zimbabweans are not the greatest. But the upside is that, as I wrote about yesterday, it gets us out of our bubbles and challenges us to learn more not just about people who look and live like us, but all people, everywhere.
Looking forward, the best that people like me can do, is listen. Listen to the stories from people of color and how they have encountered racism in the game, or anywhere. Listen and learn. When people who look like us start up with racist nonsense after a few too many Foster’s, then we can talk, tell them to shut it. But until then, we listen.
The comments are open.
Until then, I recommend watching Fire in Babylon, the story of those West Indian cricketers mentioned above, who threw off the shackles of their oppressor, sailed across an ocean, and showed them how to play their own game.