Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lilian Thuram on Racism in Soccer @ NYU

Manthia Diawara translating
for Lilian Thuram
I admit to slacking off when it comes to posting about sports. Once upon a time J's Theater did not miss the end of the baseball season, or major soccer or rugby competitions, or the Olympics. Over the last few years, however, my interest in professional sports has waned somewhat, though I still do follow them, and even watched a few of the World Series Games, in which the Boston Red Sox again defeated my favorite team, the Saint Louis Cardinals. Enough of that. One of the high points of my sports-watching history came in 1998, when the French national team defeated Brazil's squad in France, 3-0, in the FIFA World Cup.

One of the stars of that team was Lilian Thuram (born the mellifluously named Ruddy-Lilian Thuram-Ulien in 1972), a native of the French overseas department Guadeloupe. Thuram was an integral part of the defensive wall that kept competitors' goals out and carried France to the championship victory, allowing only 2 goals in 7 games, and earning Thuram the Bronze Ball award as the third best player in the tournament. Thuram and his teammates, who included some of France's best players ever, including striker Zinedine Zidane, also enthralled much of the French public. Sports fans in France were overjoyed to have a multi-racial, multi-ethnic team representing them, though this same fact upset the Far Right. Over his career, Thuram, the most-selected player for France's national team, played for Monaco, Parma, Juventus, and finally, one of the most famous clubs in the world, Barcelona, retiring in 2008. He also played in the European championships (the Euro) in 1996, 2004 and 2008.

Even while still playing, Thuram spoke out about social issues, criticizing Nicolas Sarkozy, then still Minister of the Interior and head of the UMP Party, for his harsh comments after the 2005 uprisings in Paris and other French cities. (Among other things Sarkozy infamously called the protesters "scum" that he wanted to power wash--karcherize--from their neighborhoods.) He has since become increasingly involved in various forms of social activism, ranging from organizing an exhibit at Paris's controversial Musée du quai Branly that explored the colonial practice of human zoos (think the Venus Hottentot and Ota Benga) to openly supporting same-sex marriage under the banner of the current Socialist government of President François Hollande and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. (Minister of Justice and Keeper of the Seals Christine Taubira has suffered extensive racist abuse for implementing France's marriage equality laws, which passed this summer.)

NYU Dean and German professor
Ulli Baer
Manthia Diawara

On November 8, Thuram came to NYU for a public conversation with Grant Wahl, a journalist working as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports Television. NYU Africana studies former director and filmmaker Manthia Diawara offered a welcome and later served as translator, and history professor and sports scholar Jeffrey Sammons, invoking the great C. L. R. James and his critical study on cricket, Beyond the Margins, introduced Thuram, who spoke about his career, racism in soccer and France, and his Lilian Thuram Foundation, Education Against Racism, established in 2008, which promotes the anti-racist message of there being "one race; the human race." He did so despite sometimes obtuse questions from Wahl, whose first question was jaw-droppingly wacky: "When did you first realize you were black?" Huh? Not, when did you first encounter racism, not when did you first take an interest in soccer, but…and I thought to myself, would Wahl ever ask this of a white soccer player? Would he expect to hear this question posed to him? Thuram responded by talking about how it was when he came to continental France and was taunted by racist white classmates that he realized he was black. Yet it was clear that the irony of the discussion's title and Wahl's mindset and perspective were lost on him.

Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli
Thuram talked about how people who did not suffer racist acts were conditioned to remain silent (and the same can be said for sexism and misogyny, homophobia, classism, etc.), but his goal was to get everyone to develop the courage to speak out. The complicity of silence equals guilt. He stressed that high-profile white players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo not only should but had a responsibility to speak out rather than letting the issue fall on individual players subjected to racist abuse, like Italian star Mario Balotelli. Thuram also pressed the point that it is the responsibility of soccer fans, and the wider society, to speak out and address racism. The burden has often fallen on black and brown soccer players in Europe to respond to racist attacks from opposing teams' players and fans, and some have been penalized for walking off the field, speaking out, even answering with epithets of their own. Fellow white players, as well as soccer leagues and politicians have sometimes responded forcefully, but at times they haven't. He underlined is that if fellow and opposing players, coaches, teams, leagues and their on-field and top officials, and the larger society made racist ideas, attitudes and behavior--chants, taunts, bananas tossed on the field, etc.--unacceptable, it would far less common or likely. Commonplace, of course, but unfortunately state such ideas is still necessary. And acting upon them is just as necessary. Below, photos from the event.

Diawara, Thuram, Wahl, and Sammons
Thuram chatting with Wahl

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