England’s football dream may have been dashed when the team was narrowly defeated by Italy in the Uefa European Championship final at Wembley in July, but the most concerning outcome of the match was the racist abuse directed at the three young black players – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – who missed England’s penalties. A barrage of racist comments were posted on social media, a mural dedicated to Rashford in Manchester was vandalised, and several youth players at Portsmouth FC were sacked for sharing discriminatory comments about the trio in a private group chat.
The response of the England players – who, in “taking the knee” before each match, had demonstrated a willingness to challenge such racism – was typically forceful. Rashford tweeted that he was sorry for missing the penalty but would “never apologise for who I am and where I came from”. And, as Sancho pointed out, the abuse directed at him and his black teammates was “nothing new”.
Racial prejudice towards black footballers can be traced back almost to the beginning of the modern game. Attitudes to non-white people in Britain, sportspeople included, derived from 19th-century racist and imperialist “scientific” thought, stressing the apparent natural physical abilities but “weak mental capabilities” of black people – ideas that had an impact on an array of sporting activities. In 1911, for instance, the Home Office prevented black American boxer Jack Johnson from defending his world heavyweight title in London against Britain’s “Bombardier” Billy Wells. Some expressed concerns that the potential sight of a black man “pounding” a white opponent would be “unseemly”, and feared that the bout would challenge notions of white superiority that might lead to increased racial unrest across the British empire. A formal colour bar prevented non-white people from competing in British boxing championships until after the Second World War.
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