Dear Roker Report,
You editors, James Nickels, Craig Davies and especially Benjamin Eckford deserve our heartfelt thanks for taking this on.
We live across the Atlantic from the team and city that has won our hearts, so we’ve only been in SoL once. We have watched with sober concern as players of color seem to get less opportunity, so far as the fans are concerned, to prove themselves, or get dismissed more dramatically if their initial glory isn’t sustained. Dilobodji had the highest pass accuracy on the pitch when first he first started with us. N’Dong was often the most talented on the field, and he hustled. Kone was the center of the universe for a time. Anichebe gave us our only period of optimism the Moyes’ debacle. But when they came up short, or in Kone’s case, seemed to be seeking more money, they fell from grace in the eyes of fans, and they fell faster, more steeply than white players.
It seems clear enough that racism could be a factor in the loss of Asoro and Maja - two talented young players who had grown in the club. But, they chose to go elsewhere and the literature of Africans in European places suggests it is hard to be the one (or one of a small few) who looks different from anyone else. Did N’Dong have no one else he could really talk to beside Kone? It wouldn’t be easy.
We must recognize that the vicious cycle of our feeling uneasy, at risk as fans, and taking it out on those who appear “other,” hurts us in the end. We end up being upset, no less betrayed, when the targets are less comfortable, less fluid, less able to relax and let their minds and talents work optimally under difficult physical conditions. We can reinforce this higher bar for players of color. As a rule we suspect them of not being loyal enough, so they have more to prove.*
If Ki experienced a fraction of the racist characterizations that were flying around, what faster way would he have of getting back to a place where they were less common than the behavior he had? We can say that, “they’re professionals; they’re paid a lot of money; it’s part of the package…” but the more we learn about human beings, the more we discover that it is the unconscious, emotional patterns that play the biggest role. They explain Brexit and Trump’s election, for example.**
SAFC is the whitest team in the league now. No doubt that includes an element of choice. Players come to a team which has ended lower than the year before in three straight seasons and has not avoided a battle since 2012. They must factor into their calculations whether they are going to feel comfortable in the community. We know the fans are central to what makes Sunderland a “massive” club in their eyes. To read that Benjamin Eckford is sick of the demonstrated racism is to understand that the players must be aware that there is a nasty edge to it.
Ultimately, Sunderland provides a great opportunity for players, but it includes the incredible pressure of the fan base that cares the most. If it is biased enough to tolerate bigotry in the stands, what player of color would seek it out? Stress is very harmful, long term.
In the states, It is absolutely clear that racism has regained ground. It is dispiriting. But also racism is recognized and called out more reliably than ever before. (The political opponent who recently discovered a racist 35-year-old photo of a newly-elected Southern governor knew s/he had the key to sabotaging him, for example.) Knowing the US’ toxic history, we try individually in our family to treat each person of color we encounter with a slight degree greater friendliness than the norm.
Please let Sunderland become the place that becomes known for its intolerance of racism. What if, when an a*hole loudly uses a racist term, the nearest offended people quickly agree together and spread the word to their neighbors and all around nearby that at moment coming soon, like when the clock went to“32:00,” they would all yell “NO BIGOTRY HERE!” And point at the offender. It could be over in 10 seconds, even if they agreed to say it twice. The target, really, is the behavior. The people taking part in calling it out, I guarantee, would feel good. If it happened, and such valuable conduits as the Roker Report, ALS and the Wise Men Say celebrated it, presumably, it could be repeated.
Sunderland is a fabulous place, and it is worthy of being known for such powerful behavior. As they say, “do not doubt that a small group of dedicated people can make the world better, indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Thanks again to Benjamin Eckford, our hero, and to the editors of the Roker Report.
Elizabeth Hovey, John, Jake and Stella Jiler
*Fortunately, Defoe met every test. The reciprocal loyalty of him and the city endures, but he’s the exception that proves the role. Does his story really mean that we as a group of fans are fair, by and large?
**Indeed, what better explanation for the Brexit vote is there, or the election of Trump than a lot of people saying, “we’re not happy, something’s got to be different, this option looks like a change, so I’m voting for it.”
Ed’s Note [JN]: Thanks for your letter. I must admit this is a little clutching at straws. I fail to see any racism issues that do exists in small bursts in the stands and on the streets spoiling onto critique of players on the pitch.
Racism of course exists, and is often aimed towards players borne out of genuine frustration in isolated incidents. Not to provide an excuse, but rather to claim that it is not endemic in Sunderland and is absolutely not institutional.
It may be a little different across the pond, especially in an institutional way after Trump’s inauguration. The issues of racial police brutality and genuine caste divisions are much lower in the UK in general.
Is there institutional racism? Of course. Just look at the way the Daily Mail (and many others) treat Raheem Sterling. It is despicable and beyond the pale. But these forms of racism are generally top-down and propagated by a disgusting tabloid culture. The spates of issues Benjamin and many others discuss are much more isolated and borne of a lack of education on the subject, disgusting outbursts of frustration and the willingness to often find a scapegoat.
However, I do not believe these players were chased away due to an endemic of racism, but rather just because they were promising young players who chose the option to move abroad and up the leagues to make the most of their short career path.
Sunderland is not institutionally a racist place, but all racism endured or heard must always, always be raised, battled and taken out of the game.