Imagine Derek Jeter leading the New York Yankees off the field because opposing fans were yelling racial slurs and throwing bananas at his team. Or a game between the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls halted because of unrelenting race-baiting from the crowd.
It’s almost unfathomable to a U.S. sports fan, even with the country’s long, wrenching and seemingly endless struggle to achieve equality. Yet scenes like that play out at European soccer stadiums with alarming frequency, the product of a toxic mix of culture, ideology, geographical proximity, economics and alcohol.
“It’s an interesting contrast,” said Orin Starn, chair of the cultural anthropology department at Duke University. “America had to go through the civil rights movement, and we went through a national crash-course in race relations and racial sensitivity — to the point in public culture that we’re painfully correct. It’s really different in Europe. Europe has not gone through the same kind of process of public debate and painful reckoning with questions of race and difference.”
Two weeks after a match between Roma and AC Milan in Italy’s top soccer league had to be halted for almost two minutes because of racial abuse by fans, European soccer’s governing body will ask its 53 members on Friday to adopt a series of sanctions aimed at curtailing racism. One of the proposals UEFA will consider would force clubs to close sections of seats after racial abuse by fans, escalating to a complete shutdown for additional incidents.
At FIFA’s annual congress, May 30 and 31 in Mauritius, the world governing body will consider throwing teams out of competitions, or even relegating them — forcing them into a lower division — if their players, officials or fans are found guilty of any form of discrimination.
“If UEFA were to do something like ban viewers or really clamp down on them, it might work to some degree,” said Andrei S. Markovits, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan and expert on sports culture in the United States and Europe. “But this is not a state issue. It’s what we call a civil society issue.”
Despite the publicity they get, the incidents of racial intolerance occur only sporadically. But they are ugly when they do. They’re not limited to soccer, either. Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia apologized again Wednesday for saying he would “serve fried chicken” if he’d have dinner with Tiger Woods.
But soccer is the common language throughout much of the world. And while Americans are passionate about their sports — how else to explain kids camping outside Cameron Indoor Stadium for weeks just to get Duke tickets? — there are fundamental differences in how fans in Europe and elsewhere and the United States come by their loyalties. That helps explain why bigotry can exist so publicly in one place and not the other.
In Europe and other parts of the world, teams often were originally affiliated with a religion or political party rather than a city, said Markovits, who examined the issue in a 2011 article in the Harvard International Review, “Sports Fans Across Borders: America from Venus, Europe from Mars.” So when rivals face each other, it’s as much a triumph of an ideology as it is the final score.
“When Barcelona plays Real Madrid, this is the Spanish civil war. It’s not a soccer game,” Markovits said. “This is not Lakers-Celtics, Yankees-Red Sox, Giants-Dodgers, the most pedigreed of American rivalry games. They hate each other, but it’s about sports. It’s not about you don’t have the correct political view.”
Added ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, who played two seasons at Padova in Italy’s Serie A, “This is where it’s difficult sometimes for American sports fans to understand fandom of other countries when it comes to soccer: What is the underlying part of many of these fan groups is politics, cultural differences and long-held beliefs within these organizations that have absolutely nothing to do with the actual kicking of the ball.
“This is a visual display sometimes of their ideology, their beliefs when it comes to, not soccer, but their country.”
The passion Americans have for their teams tends to be diluted, too. While Europeans or South Americans have one club and one country they root for, an American will have a favorite baseball team. A favorite pro football team. A favorite college football team. A favorite college basketball team. And on and on.
If one of those teams is struggling, it’s disappointing, Markovits said. But not as devastating as it might be for, say, an Arsenal supporter, who has invested all of his or her energy into the Gunners.
“We have three or four entities to which we attach emotional capital,” he said.
Sports in the United States also have become more “event” than game.
The best tickets are now held by corporations and high rollers, few of whom have the same passion as lifelong fans whose loyalty stretches back two, three and even four generations. There also is a relationship between social class and moments of racism, said Rick Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova. The higher the social class, the more subtle the expressions of racism tend to be, he said.
In an effort to expand their brand, teams and leagues in the U.S. also have made a concerted effort to make their games more family friendly, said Larry DeGaris, a marketing professor at the University of Indianapolis. Warm-and-fuzzy mascots give away T-shirts during timeouts, and popular music blares from the P.A.
“That’s only beginning to happen in Europe, where soccer attendees tend to skew male and younger relative to U.S. sports,” DeGaris said.
And, of course, the United States has a history of diversity that the rest of the world does not. Almost everyone in the United States can trace his or her roots to another country while many European countries, in particular, are still struggling with the idea of multiculturalism.
“It could be that we’re more mixed here because our country is made up of all types of different people,” said Tab Ramos, the star U.S. midfielder who played five seasons in Spain.
Indeed, most of the countries where racial abuse has been most rampant — Italy, the Netherlands, Eastern Europe — are countries where immigration is a central and deeply divisive issue.
“Players of color become all the more a lightning rod for controversy and hatred,” Starn said.
This isn’t to say American sports fans — or Americans in general — can congratulate themselves on being enlightened.
Jason Collins is the only active openly gay male player in any of the four major American professional sports, and the veteran NBA center only came out last month. Brittney Griner has said her coach at Baylor encouraged her not to discuss her sexual orientation. San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said during Super Bowl week he wouldn’t welcome a gay player on his team, and homophobic language doesn’t yet have the charge of racial slurs.
“We have not confronted the gender demons and the sexual orientation demons in our sports culture quite as up front as we have with race,” Eckstein said.
And, Starn said, just because American fans aren’t shouting slurs does not make them better than people in Europe or elsewhere.
“There is a certain smugness among Americans around race and now, I would say, gay and lesbian issues,” Starn said. “But these problems have not gone away. We still live in an America that’s racially divided by neighborhood and friendship and marriages. And we still live in an America where negative attitudes of gay and lesbians are pretty widespread.
“Just because you don’t hear racist chants is not a sign that America has achieved some nirvana of racial equality and tolerance.”