The Pervasive Whiteness in Sports Culture

4 players on UCLA women’s soccer team toudh each other’s shoulder while 1 player of color kneels
Photo by Jaylynne Heffernan and UCLA Athletics

by Bilal Saeed

Growing up as a Pakistani-American Muslim in a white community, I was no stranger to people asking me where I was really from, what gods I believed in, or if I had to marry the only other Brown girl in school.

Existing as one of only a few young Muslims in a predominantly white community became even more challenging when my senior year of high school coincided with the tragic events of September 11, 2001 — a day more aptly known as “9/11.” Just days after 9/11, I was called a racial slur by an opponent while playing a high school soccer game. This was, to my knowledge, the first time I experienced such a strong display of hate in sports. This incident is still more vivid than I wish. At the time, I thought this incident was a reflection of the times and not a circumstance of a white athlete knowing he could say whatever he wanted with no real consequences. In retrospect, I was wrong — these painful words were an example of racism and xenophobia.

Fifteen years later, I find myself in a much different role within the game of soccer — as a co-owner and Chair of Association Football Club Ann Arbor (AFC Ann Arbor). Despite my leadership in this role, I still have racial slurs thrown at me from white players and fans, and unfortunately, there is no remorse or accountability for their racist rhetoric.

The racism I experience also occurs off the field as I encounter the whiteness of American soccer vis-à-vis its ownership and executives. The impact of whiteness goes beyond words, as we’ve recently seen in the case of Sarah Gorden, a Black defender for the Chicago Red Stars. In a social media post, Gorden shared details of the racist harassment that she and her boyfriend (also Black) experienced after her opening match of the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). In her post, she writes in detail about how a white male security guard followed and threatened her boyfriend for walking down the steps to see Gorden after the match. The security guard’s threat was for breaking COVID protocol by going to see his girlfriend post-match, but the white Houston Dash friends and families were doing the exact same thing with no such threats. The league, rather than listening to Sarah Gorden — a pioneer for Black women in the sport — conducted an independent investigation that found no wrongdoing, dismissing her allegations of racial discrimination.

Even if this was the first racist incident like this in the NWSL, the league proved once again they have no proactive plan to fight racism or be an anti-racist organization. Previous events signal the league’s absent commitment to addressing anti-black racism. Whether it was the incident with a stadium security guard threatening to call the police on Jessica McDonald’s 7-year-old son who wanted to see his Mom after the game, or the time Adrianna French (2021 NWSL Challenge Cup MVP) was subjected to racial slurs from Portland Thorns fans, this league’s inactions perpetuate whiteness in the sport.

After so many missed opportunities, the inaction itself — namely, the anchor of all whiteness — is proof that the NWSL, like all professional leagues, will always put profit over people. Racism will remain constant until white stakeholders are educated enough to take action against racialized incidents.

An overwhelming majority of teams in professional soccer have all-white administrators, coaches, and staff. As the FareNet report documents, the U.S. Youth Soccer “pay-to-play” system excludes Black and Latina girls and women from entry into mainstream soccer. This lack of representation shows no real understanding of the systemic issues Black and Brown people face and endure daily and a culture screams “white way is the right way.”

Gorden’s response to the racist incidents that she and her boyfriend experienced after her match that night included her voicing her frustration and disappointment on social media. However, her speaking about her experience came at a great cost. Gorden’s comments resulted in the NWSL fining her — a punitive measure that can only be described as censorship.

We must situate this racial punishment within the larger social context of our country’s current race relations. Indeed, a predominately white soccer league punished a Black woman for speaking about her experience witnessing anti-Black racism happened at the very moment of the Derek Chauvin murder trial, during the protests in response to the police murdering Daunte Wright, and — without overstating matters — during a period of racial reckoning that is currently testing the moral ideals of our nation. Indeed, the issues are not confined to women’s soccer but are simply amplified because of how white the sport has always been.

We don’t have to go far or look hard to find other examples of whiteness prevailing in America’s biggest professional sports leagues. The NFL has deliberately excluded Black coaches from head coaching positions for decades. As Professor Lou Moore put it, “They could help them win ball games, but they would never be the face of the franchise.”

When we think about whiteness in sports culture, it can be as deliberate as the NFL not hiring Black coaches. Or it can be deeply disguised as Howard Bryant writes in Full Dissidence: Notes From An Uneven Playing Field.

Players will often express their fear of being labeled as a dissident by their coach, owner, or fans by talking about the need for real action over social issues. Even though professional sports organizations do their best to structure player protests to the point where they are often performative, suggesting protests are unnecessary belittles the work of every civil rights activist that marched, participated in sit-ins, or sparked a boycott. Further, this line of thinking upholds the white ideology that dictates when, where, and how Black and Brown humans can speak up about everyday issues we deem important to our communities.

In his book, Bryant captures these sentiments perfectly on Colin Kaepernick’s protests, “There was one gesture that mobilized the industry of professional football, inflamed the President of the United States and became a referendum on principled risk — and it was kneeling.”

Players like Sarah Gorden are continually systemically silenced by their leagues through a system of fines, but also by the league not listening, believing, and supporting these Black players. Activist-athletes like Kaiya McCullough — who have been kneeling in support of Kaepernick since college — are carrying a burden that the leagues won’t. The current culture of American sports doesn’t invite players of color to stand up for themselves.

We may think of sports as a level playing field, but as Dr. Anthony Weems reminds us, sports represent a space where hegemonic politics become augmented and rationalized. He shared the example of the New England Patriots — a brand and symbol that retells and represents the white patriot narrative — and the long-time trio of Brady, Belichick, and Kraft who are all friends and supporters of Donald Trump. This friend circle represents the deep roots of whiteness in sports.

Words, combined with privilege, become even more harmful to Black and Brown athletes and communities. Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy once said he thought Kapernick “might be on Palestine’s side or something.” His Islamaphobic and racist remarks get overlooked because of PR stunts like the “Barstool Fund,” a fund he started to help small businesses which are financed through donations by his followers, used to promote his profitable new sports betting partnership.

He uses his privilege and position to continually make comments like these, which perpetuate white supremacy in sports. These comments are quickly forgotten or laughed off as bad jokes. One of their small business grants supported a Palestinian-owned business that continually praises Portnoy for his efforts. The whiteness of sports culture is deep-rooted and promotes cultural assimilation to feel included.

Activism in sport is more prevalent today than ever before. The question is will it be enough to dismantle decades of whiteness upon which sports are built? We won’t come even close to a solution until white leaders, owners, and media realize the importance of the issue and decide to take action to end the whiteness and anti-black racism that entrenches sports.

Bilal Saeed is a sports marketing professional focused on community building. Saeed has relied heavily on scholarly work to guide his sports career and eventually became interested in his own research revolving around racism in sport, specifically soccer. Saeed will begin teaching ethics in sport at Wayne State University in the fall of 2021.