Let me begin by saying two things. First, I’m not really into sports. Second, my spouse, Kip, is a soccer aficianado, and because of that I sometimes learn about the inspiring things that can happen in the world of sports, one of which took place a couple weeks ago at a soccer match in Italy.
The game was being played by two Italian teams, and on the visiting team from Milan was a player, Kevin-Prince Boateng, who is a German-Ghanian. Whenever he got the ball, some of the fans in the stands would start making racist taunts. Finally, Boateng had had enough. He threw the ball into the stands at the hecklers, pulled off his jersey and walked off the field.
That alone would have made for an inspiring tale of personal courage, but it wasn’t the end of the story. Soon all his teammates followed him off the field, then the players on the home team did as well.
In a previous post, Hoodies, Menorahs and Rainbow Flags, I wrote more extensively about the power of nonviolent solidarity, and the event that took place in that Italian soccer stadium was one more example of how effective it is. Boateng’s teammates refused to play in the presence of racist behavior, even if the attacks weren’t directed at them personally. They took collective action rather than leaving Boateng to stand alone, and as a result they lent their support for a candid, public conversation about racist attitudes.
I firmly believe that when injustice is happening, we have more power than we sometimes realize. The game of oppression relies on people playing their assigned positions: perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Because the perpetrators and victims are often locked into intractable patterns of belief and behavior, the bystanders can make a huge difference if they’re willing to relinquish their safe neutrality. Once they determine that they’re no longer willing to stand by while others are targeted, they inevitably shift the dynamic and the outcome.
I’m looking forward to the day — and it will come — when it’s the white players who take the initiative, when as soon as anyone of color is taunted or dehumanized they pull off their own jerseys and walk off the field, because racism is a game in which we all lose, it’s a game none of us have to play, and it’s one we all have a role in stopping.
Kip Leitner says
Kip Leitner says
I experienced something similar to this in Portland Oregon once, where I lived for a year. Every evening in the summer there at a grass field adjoining the downtown YMCA, beginning around 4:00 p.m., soccer players from all over the world would gather for informal pick-up games — without referees, marked lines or goals. This is the way most soccer is played all over the world. Players drift in and out of teams, goals marked by gym bags get wider or skinnier based on the number of players, you have a wide variety of age groups and skill levels, from semi-pro to high school to joggers who always wanted to try their hand (feet) at soccer.
One day an exceptionally large, rough player showed up and began banging around other players. In these types of pick-up games, players generally respect the rules, and since there is no referee, everyone moderates their own sporting behavior. However, the roughneck kept plowing into players and generally causing havoc — until he injured one of the smaller players on the field, who limped off. As he limped off, one the semi-pro players announced — and this was well before the time we usually ended up our play — “I think that’s enough for today,” and everyone walked off the field, leaving the roughneck all alone.
If you watch the video above carefully, you’ll see that when Boateng starts walking off the field, initially no one goes with him, but after a few moments a few of his teammates follow, and after that there is a general swell of movement. Throughout history, mass movements for positive change generally have no shortages of people like Boateng — the prophets — who, fed up with injustice, make the first move. It’s that second small group that goes after the prophet which catalyzes the movement of the mass. This is a great thing, because it shows that you don’t need special skills to be in that second group. Only thing you need is a big, open heart. And with that, the world finds it own heart and follows along. There is no other way. The myth is that what we need is more leaders, when what we actually need are more followers.
Patricia Pearce says
Kip, thanks for sharing this story and reminding us about the important role of the followers. It makes me think of that great TED talk about the first follower. “The first follower is actually an underestimated form of leadership in itself. … The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.”