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Sport’s Symbolic Stand

Racism, like a cockroach, has a disappointing tendency not to die. It’s bad enough with one case occurring but when two happen in a week, you’d better call the exterminators. Thankfully there are those willing to take a stand; for every imbecilic action there is an opposite reaction.

Like the banana that Dani Alves ate in protest against a Villarreal fan, last week’s incidents could have been a slip in sport’s persistent and well documented battle against prejudice. The Barcelona defender fetched the fruit hurled at him from the crowd and, in eating it defiantly, turned a story about racism’s prevalence into a football PR triumph. His action said more than any verbal statement could, sparking a social media craze of symbolic selfies. Sergio Aguero, David Luiz, Neymar and Luiz Suarez were just a few of the high profile players to post pictures of themselves ‘taking a bite out of racism’. Under the hashtag #weareallmonkeys the wider football community registered their support and hopefully made the idiot who saw fit to commit a casual act of racism feel rather foolish and isolated.

Beyond football, Twitter trended with thousands adding their banana-shot to the anti-racism collage. The incident was an excellent example of how sport and symbolism can take on the negative and turn it into something positive. Hopefully the real legacy of the event will be that people remember what the symbol stood for and not why people did it.

The States also witnessed a race row when LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, was caught making racist remarks. This is one of the few own goals even the best sports PR can’t mitigate. Sponsors left the Clippers in droves with Virgin America, Mercedes, Chumash Casino Resorts and CarMax cutting their ties with the club completely whilst State Farm, Kia, Sprint, Yokohama Tires, Red Bull, Corona and AquaHydrate have suspended their relationships pending further consideration. Hitting an owner in the wallet is often as effective as other humiliations such as the ‘lifetime’ ban the NBA has served on Sterling.

Fuelling the story, the Clippers players threw their jerseys into centre court and wore their practice shirts inside out before their game against Golden State Warriors. Removing all references to the Clippers brand they ensured a point was clearly made.

Stands are important but it is also vital to make them in such as way that the rationale behind them is well communicated, as Rio Ferdinand’s 2012 stand shows. Rio refused to wear a Kick It Out’s anti-racism t-shirt by way of highlighting how little was done to help his brother when he received on pitch abuse. Ironically he probably did more to raise awareness for the campaign by boycotting the promotion; whilst many remember he was part of the embargo, how many can remember why?

Symbolism is a key element to sport, from sponsors branding, to the Mobot to the Black Power salute; whilst no one wants to see any more prejudice in sport, let’s hope that if it happens, the players, fans, sports agencies and those who govern it are ready to respond with something powerful.

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