The first time I was ever slapped with a racial slur was on the soccer field. I was 11 years old, and I was the only girl of colour on the pitch in a small town outside of Halifax. I was a keen player and an aggressive forward. During a corner kick, I was standing in the six-yard box doing my level best to prepare for a cross. I was standing beside the opposing team’s goalkeeper when I heard her whisper venomously, “Hey, smelly P*ki!”
I was shocked, and then furious. Before my teammate kicked the ball for the corner kick, I responded with a clenched fist and was promptly ejected from the game. Angry tears stung my eyes. I was doubly humiliated: once for the slur and then for not having anyone on the field step up to support me. My parents were disappointed and concerned, but they also seemed unsurprised—they’d expected something like this would happen.
Sports are inherently political, and to say otherwise (as the “stick to sports” crowd usually holler) is disingenuous. People can’t separate their racial, cultural and sexual identities when they compete in sports. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe and Karina LeBlanc are using their social media for good by drawing attention to racial injustice, xenophobia and layers of sexism and pay inequality in sports and even campaigning for disaster relief. To ask them to stop is unfair. Sports aren’t just stats and match reports.
Kids already intuitively know this, so when intersections of race, gender, class and sports play out on the field, we can’t just leave them there. These powerful examples of resilience are important teaching tools for our children. From women’s soccer teams fighting for equitable pay to homophobic slurs thrown around on a baseball diamond, sports offer a window into the issues facing humanity. Our kids look to athletes as heroes, and what they do and don’t do can be excellent entry points for coaches, teachers and parents to talk about equality, cooperation and fair play.
When I was growing up, my parents often talked to me about race and sports. They used the example of Jackie Robinson to illustrate the systemic inequalities and history of discrimination in our society and point out how those of privilege need to show solidarity, compassion and empathy. I might be the only brown Muslim girl on the pitch, but I belong there because the beautiful game is for all of us.
After the incident on the field, my mom suggested a meeting with the club and the girl’s parents. My dad, on the other hand, advised that I score on that player as much as possible. I opted for the latter—it seemed like the sweetest way to teach her a lesson. They also pointed out that this might not be the last time this would happen, so I started reading about the stories of Althea Gibson and Muhammad Ali. Though I drew strength from their perseverance, that memory still flashes in my mind every time I walk onto the pitch.
Like me, my children’s experiences with sports have collided with politics. It’s not possible to not have conversations with my family about injustices, both historical and current. My husband and I watch games and major events, but we also tie in what’s happening in the world and how it manifests in sports.
When I asked my 13-year-old son if he could tell me about a specific athlete who has faced racism, his very swift reply was “Uh, every professional black athlete.” Black and brown families must start talking to their kids about the dangers of racial profiling and xenophobia from a very young age, but we should all be talking about bullying, personal safety and allyship.
Children might have heard of the movement that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (affectionately known as “Kap”) started over 13 months ago. He kneeled during the American national anthem to silently and respectfully protest police brutality and racial injustice. Athletes of all ages, sports and backgrounds, including Canadians, have since joined him. ThinkProgress created a database to monitor the “Kaepernick effect.” It has been tracked in at least three countries and included children as young as seven years old. The project has been lauded and appreciated in sports media and beyond. I think this is a turning point to show society that children are watching and learning.
However, there are schools that ban kids from protesting. A few weeks ago in Houston, two black high school football players silently protested during the national anthem and were kicked off the team. One had his fist in the air and the other one was kneeling. After the anthem had played, the coach of the team furiously demanded that they remove their jerseys and told them to leave. The coach—a former vet—insisted that their actions offended other vets, despite the fact that there have been legions of former Army personnel that support the peaceful protests.
This sends the message to racialized youth that even their silent, peaceful protests aren’t acceptable, which is brutally unfair. Taking away a child’s agency leaves them with no options. They need a space to object to what many have already experienced. In turn, this movement may inspire necessary conversations in locker rooms, on team buses and in the stands.
I definitely speak to my children about Kap—in fact, I own two of his jerseys (my eldest son took one of them). I’d never been interested in the NFL until I started following Kap and his projects. Kaepernick has started an initiative called Know Your Rights Camp. He works with racialized youth in major cities, teaching them about constitutional rights and civic responsibilities. He offers lessons on proper nutrition and teaches kids that being unapologetic for their identities is a perfectly wonderful thing. I not only follow Kap but also use him as an example for my children. I shared San Francisco 49er Eric Reid’s powerful editorial piece in The New York Times on why he decided to kneel with Kap as a starting point to teach my children how to be allies.
Whether it’s police brutality, sexism or homophobia, a lot of parents might be reluctant to broach these subjects with their children. Perhaps they believe the debunked idea that children “don’t see colour.” (Kids see colour, but they don’t have bigotry embedded into their thoughts and actions.) Or parents might be unsure of how to explain it or what words to use because they have never experienced this type of discrimination. Perhaps giving children a chance to hear from athletes in their own words can be a good place to start. Sports is often like playing, which can make it easier to weave in fundamental lessons on kindness and compassion.
As parents, our duty is to teach our children to be empathetic and informed and to put those ideas into practice. If they have privilege of any kind (racial, financial and/or physical), they can be allies for those who don’t. Ultimately, these lessons, often gleaned through sports, also teach our kids to care about the society they live in—and that’s a win.