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Yaya Touré and racism in sports

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Yaya Toure (R), a forward for Manchester City in the English Premier League, celebrates with teammate James Milner (L) after scoring his first of two goals against Swansea City at The Liberty Stadium, May 17, 2015 (Credit: PA Wire)

“How do you feel when soccer fans direct monkey chants at you during games?” It’s a question Yaya Touré, the midfielder for Manchester City who hails from the Ivory Coast, has become all too familiar with and one that could be asked of a number of African-born professional soccer players.  His answer is refreshingly honest: “It’s difficult to deal with that…As a sportsman, you want to finish the game but when you hear that, it breaks you. It’s not easy to experience that.”

In a recent CNN article titled “Yaya Touré: ‘Monkey chants break you'” Matias Grez examined racism in soccer and the steps FIFA and others are taking to create a safer environment for its players and fans. While racism and discrimination are problems throughout the professional circuit, the incident to which Touré referred occurred while playing at CSKA Moscow. FIFA finds that fact particularly troubling considering Russia is set to host the next World Cup in 2018. The team was given a $56,000 fine and forced to close portions of its stadium as a penalty for their fans’ behavior.

However, FIFA is not content with simply punishing racism when it happens. They hope to be more proactive in finding a way to curb the growing discrimination among its host cities. Their first step to that end is sending independent observers, trained by the European anti-discrimination organization, to “high risk” matches. These observers will report any violations or examples of discrimination back to the governing body, which will then hand out sanctions accordingly.  

As FIFA president Sepp Blatter said regarding racism in the sport, and specifically in Russia, “a lot of work needs to be done.” While officials say that there are no plans to relocate the 2018 World Cup, they make no qualms about the need for the situation to drastically improve over the next three years. FIFA’s hope is that by being more intentional in their efforts to punish offenders and the teams they love for discrimination violations, the necessary changes will begin to take place.

Racism has been in the news quite a bit of late. However, there are some that might see racist remarks against an opposing player at a soccer match as different than what has occurred recently in Baltimore, Ferguson, and a number of other places. After all, the line between fandom and bigotry tends to get a little more blurry when sports are involved. But why is that?

Perhaps the fans that repeatedly called Touré a monkey would have done the same if they saw him on the street, but I suspect that they wouldn’t. So why is it that people feel safer being the worst versions of themselves in crowds? Why do people think that there are different moral standards when others are acting the in the same way?

I think the primary reason is that people believe that, in a setting where they cannot be singled out, they cannot be punished. There can be a feeling of invincibility in anonymity. However, none of us are anonymous to God. For better or worse, he knows our every thought, word, and action. And when the day comes that we stand before his throne of judgment, “everybody else was doing it” will not be an acceptable excuse (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Thomas Paine once said “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.” As the Body of Christ, we are accountable to our Father in heaven and that accountability should lead us to live the kind of life that makes our message of salvation trustworthy to all we encounter. Will that be true of you today?