As the most anticipated series of 2020 began, players from both sides did something unusual. Led by Australian skipper Aaron Finch, the home side and the Indian cricket team gathered around and stood in a Barefoot Circle.
But what is this ‘Barefoot Circle’ and what does it signify?
This unusual ritual of gathering around, forming a circle bare feet, is Australia’s way of acknowledging the culture of their indigenous people — the Aboriginals — and to take a stand against racism.
It is a way for players and teams to take a moment prior to matches to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, connect to each other as opponents and pay respect to the country. It’s done barefoot as a way to connect to the country and to take a moment to reflect that we all are on common ground, we are all human beings and we need to stand strong with each other, for each other.
The Australian men’s team will also be sporting specially-designed Indigenous shirts in the upcoming T20 series against India as an ode to the ancestors and past, present and future aboriginal cricketers.
So, why the sudden gestures of appreciation towards the Aboriginals?
The answer lies in the Black Lives Movement.
On May 25, an African-American man George Floyd died in the USA after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee on the handcuffed man’s neck as he gasped for breath. The incident triggered global outrage against racism in society in the form of the Black Lives Movement.
In the past several years, sport headlines have been dominated by reports of racism. No game has been spared; the best of players have been subjected to racist slurs from their opponents, from the fans in stands and even their fellow mates.
Football superstars like Brazil’s Dani Alves and Arsenal slipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have had bananas thrown at them, while people in the stand uttered guttural sounds, a way of comparing them to apes and setting them apart from human beings.
Cricket too has had its fair share of unsavoury incidents. Who can forget the infamous “Monkeygate” when our very own Bhajji paa aka Harbhajan Singh was accused of calling the Australian all-rounder “monkey”, a racially offensive insult, during the second Test of 2007-08 Border-Gavaskar Trophy or when Jofra Archer was subjected to racial abuse in New Zealand or when the stump mic picked Pakistan’s Sarfaraz Ahmed uttering a racial slur in Urdu to South African all-rounder Andile Phehlukwayo.
In 2020 “taking a knee” became a common sight at demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Athletes also did the same before matches in the English Premier League, Formula 1 racing, NFL, NBA.
In cricket, the gesture started in the West Indies’ Test series in England this summer but was later discontinued for the subsequent tours of Pakistan and Australia.
In the backdrop of the BLM campaign, athletes from the Black, Asian, and minority ethnic community (BAME) all over the world took the opportunity to speak out against the atrocities they have been subjected to while playing.
Many cricketers, including former West Indies captains Darren Sammy and Chris Gayle, opened up about racist incidents that happened in their lives.
Sammy’s incident is especially daunting for it revealed a type of racism extremely prevalent in India – the one where a person doesn’t realise s/he is being racist. The two time World Cup-winning captain alleged that he was called “kalu” — a derogatory word to describe black people — during his stint with Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Indian Premier League but later said the teammate, who addressed him with a racist nickname reached out to assure him that he was “operating from a place of love”.
While the incident was quickly swept under the rug, one must understand referring to someone based on their skin colour is wrong. It is not okay. It is racist because it is attacking the person’s dignity and it should definitely not be encouraged.
Sadly, despite several incidents, the BCCI has failed to show solidarity with the BLM movement. Even in the IPL, all-rounder Hardik Pandya was the only player to take a knee in support of the BLM movement after scoring a half century. Even now, while all other countries are contemplating how to take anti racist stand, no such conversation is taking place on in India.
So, what should be done to rid sports of racism?
West Indies skipper Jason Holder has called for strict action against players found guilty of making racist comments, saying they should be penalised just like dope offenders and match-fixers.
But racism in sports cannot be stopped by merely having tough rules. To eradicate this social evil the realisation has to come from within a person. One must acknowledge it is fundamentally wrong to differentiate based on skin colour or features.
Society too needs to play its part. Influential characters like athletes need to guide individuals until they understand it is unacceptable to discriminate.
But it is easier said than done. Some of the sporting bodies, including the like of England and Wales Cricket Board, themselves have been accused of being institutionally racist.
Formula 1 world champion driver Lewis Hamilton, who is still the only black driver in F1, has also been vocal in his criticism of the sport for its lack of diversity and last year spoke of his desire to work with F1 and the FIA to bring about change but to no avail.
Tennis legend Serena Williams has also made it a point to highlight the prejudice she has faced on and off the court. The 23 –time Grand Slam winner, who is among the world’s most successful and well-known tennis stars, claimed she has been “underpaid (and) undervalued” as a Black woman in tennis. She boycotted the BNP Paribas Open tournament at the California Indian Wells for 14 years after suffering racist jeers there in 2001.
Despite all the uproar it is difficult to say if things have changed after the BLM movement. One can only wonder if the world of sports has made major strides in pushing for true equality. The athletes, in a way, have done their job as influencers but there is still a long way to go.
Like Rome wasn’t built in a day, racism is not something that will go away overnight. Every person, institution, governing body must indulge in introspection and rectify their mistakes. The discussion around racism needs to go on every day, people need to be sensitised.
Let’s hope all the powerful messages delivered passionately by former and current players are not forgotten.