The fight against racism in sport scored many victories in 2014

On its surface, it may appear that 2014 was a step back for the testy and tenuous correlation between sport and racism, both in the United States and in the international community. But despite the concerning number of racist incidents, the recognition of those incidents, the significantly outraged reaction to those events, as wells as the number of initiatives and watchdog groups formed to eradicate the scourge once and for all represent encouraging signs.

Skeptics, of course, believe that racism in sport is only getting worse, with everyone from NBA owners to international soccer fanatics guilty of racist behavior presenting a powerful indictment of the sporting scene. But a different perspective reveals that the most powerful incidents of racism in the past year — former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s leaked phone calls, Italian soccer president Carlo Tavecchio’s calling African internationals “banana-eaters” during his campaign for election, and the nearly 80 incidents of fan racism throughout the international soccer landscape — were growing evidence of something else. Namely, the fact that the international community will no longer turn a blind eye to these incidents, no matter how powerful the guilty party.

Every time one of these incidents grabbed international headlines, they were followed by even more headlines outlining the swift and heavy backlash to the events. When Sterling’s taped phone calls emerged, the Clippers players responded by threatening to boycott the team and the season. The NBA league commissioner, Adam Silver, made an example of Sterling by banning the owner for life.

In Italy, though Tavecchio was eventually elected president, he was barred from taking any positions within UEFA or FIFA for six months. Elsewhere in the nation, players began taking a stand against the fan racism that has set Italy apart for all the wrong reasons. Kevin Prince-Boateng, a Ghana international playing for AC Milan, responded to racist taunts by kicking the ball into the crowd, discarding his jersey and walking off the field. His team followed him in a powerful demonstration of solidarity. Moreover, in Italy and throughout the international soccer community, any evidence of racism — real, perceived, or otherwise — were quickly exposed and the transgressors shamed by the community and, in some cases, punished or banned.

In the United States, superstar athletes are also helping shed light on the larger issues of racism in society. Following the police killings of Michael Brown, in St. Louis, and Eric Garner, in New York City, world-famous basketball players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant publicly displayed the slogan “Black Lives Matter”, among others. While this represents little more than passive activism, it is activism nonetheless, and recent history has seen very few athletes take such a public stance on a hot-button issue like racism.

These examples show a sporting culture that is increasingly — and explosively — reactive to the smear of racism. However, there are ever more proactive measures taken to attack the racism scourge before it can rear its ugly head. Among the continuing efforts of major professional sport organizations — FIFA’s “Say No to Racism” is the most recognizable of this group — 2014 also welcomed the Global Watch initiative.

Established in June 2014 during a summit of sporting leaders in Doha, Qatar, organized by Richard Attias & Associates, the Global Watch initiative was established “to show a red card to racism in sport.” The effort, spearheaded by Tokyo Sexwale, the former South African Minister of Human Settlements, and backed by sponsors including the Nelson Mandela Foundation, aims to recover the integral values of sport and eliminate the racism polluting the true spirit of competition.

As Mandela himself once said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” With the international sporting community taking both reactive and proactive action against any and all evidence of prejudice over the past year, it seems sport may soon return to those fundamentals.