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How the football codes in liberal democracies confronted racism

By Chris Lewis - posted Friday, 10 September 2021

We live in a time when liberal democracies are regularly (and rightfully) reminded of the need to address ongoing incidents of racism in society (and sport).

For example, one 2021 article observes "that only 3.9% of coaches in Europe's 14 biggest (football) leagues have an ethnic minority background", perhaps replicating "age-old historic patterns of black labourers and white owners supported by scientific racism, slavery and colonialism".

However, while racist incidents persist, it is also important to show the progress that has occurred in recent decades in certain liberal democracies (including Australia, the US and England) with regard to sport rather than accept critical analysis alone.


In this article, I will highlight aspects of the major football code experience in Australia, the US and England to provide historical reasons why the culture towards race/ethnicity in sport is much better today than decades ago, and how attitudes continue to evolve for the better in recent times.

While entrenched racism was evident in the English-speaking nations by the early 20th century, the inherent strength of their liberal democracies always gave individuals/groups a legitimate right/opportunity to promote their cause and express views, albeit the rate of change for issues such as racism was painful and very slow.

Nowhere is the racism in sport issue better understood than in the US given that the African American population has been around 10-12 per cent since 1890 when segregated sports became evident at a time when sports in the liberal democracies flourished.

In contrast, the proportion of United Kingdom (UK) people born in Africa or the Caribbean was still just 0.4 per cent of the total population by 1961, with those who identified with African heritage only increasing to 3 per cent by the 2011 UK Census.

In Australia, its population was mostly British up to the Second World War before the arrival of many immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, with a more diverse mix of immigrants (including Asians and Africans) only occurring from the 1970s with the softening of the White Australia policy.

However, the US experience with racism would also influence British and Australians as many were constantly exposed to US culture, whether it be entertainment, social and political developments.


In the US, constantly evolving through societal interaction that challenged the status quo, barriers for blacks in US sport were gradually broken down by various factors, including those who bravely challenged the absurdity of racism.

For instance, a 1940 New York University protest from 1940 into 1941 "served notice to intercollegiate sports world that discrimination based on colour "would no longer be tolerated" after its football team chose to expel seven protest leaders and sideline its star black player simply because the opponent (the University of Missouri) maintained a strict colour line over interracial play.

Of course, even after the Second World War, and despite many black Americans serving in the war effort, black athletes continued to experience racial abuse and discrimination by "opponents, teammates, fans, coaches, the student body, and the wider establishment of sports writers and bowl committees".

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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