African-American players leave the states for new opportunities—but do they face the same old racism?
America has come a long way since the integration of Black athletes into major sports. The first active and openly gay NBA player, Jason Collins, and potentially the first openly gay NFL player, Michael Sam, are both African American. This shows not only the progression of sports but American culture and how Blacks in sports have paved the way for understanding in this country. However, in a country where Black athletes are now treated with equal admiration and hatred as their Caucasian counterparts, one has to wonder how Black athletes fair in other countries.
While some athletes, like Kobe Bryant, develop a large following in other countries through their skills, appearance and ‘mystique,’ other athletes are still struggling for acceptance. For years in South Africa, apartheid hindered the racial inclusion of Blacks within society and in the South African Olympic sports. It wasn’t until the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC) was recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 1964 that Blacks were represented. More recently, Mario Balotelli, a Black soccer player for AC Milan, was brought to tears as racist chants overtook the stadium during a game. It is clear that even for a Black superstar, the Black experience abroad is vastly different from here in the United States.
Freshman basketball player, Melita Emmanual-Carr, from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) was taken aback from the racial slurs hurled at her teammates. While still in high school in her hometown of London, England, she still remembers their reactions. “I could tell they were surprised as was I when I heard. They didn’t know how to react,” Melita said. “There is so much diversity in London that it was hard to believe that those things were still being said.” Melita decided to attend UIC not only for her chance at a Division 1 scholarship, but also because Great Britain has decided to cut funding for its Olympic basketball development program, a program consisting primarily of Black athletes.
However, Melita wouldn’t disparage any athlete from playing abroad: “You can learn so much from playing overseas, it kind of opens people’s eyes to what the rest of the world is like.” Melita is correct. For so many athletes the experience of taking in new cultures cannot only humble them but puzzle them as well.
Current NHL player, Wayne Simmonds, wingman for the Philadelphia Flyers, has experienced both the negatives and the positives of being Black and playing the game he loves outside of the United States. Simmonds, originally from Canada, has been playing hockey since the age of three, so it came as a surprise when he returned to his home rink as a professional that it would be the first time he experienced outright racism from fans.
During the 2011 preseason in London, Ontario, a banana was hurled onto the ice while Wayne was making a shootout attempt. “The incident on my home rink hurt me a little bit more,” said Simmonds, “there have been a lot of Black, young hockey players to pass through there, and nothing was ever said or done, and when I play as a pro, it happens then.” While those actions still resonated with Simmonds, he again faced the racism while on the ice.
In 2012 the NHL faced a lockout and Simmonds found himself playing overseas for ETC Crimmitschau in the Czech Extraliga league. Similar to Balotelli, the crowd began chanting a racist slur, “opice,” meaning “monkey” in English. “There was a fight, and all of the sudden people were chanting ‘opice,’ and I had no clue what the word meant,” Simmonds recounts. “Not one person on my team told me what it meant. I had to find out for myself later on.” While some teammates might have made an attempt to spare Simmonds the hurt of the bigotry within their own hockey community, it backfired. “I was going there to just get some extra time on the ice and I think that if they told me they were afraid I would just leave,” Simmonds said. “But it worked backwards. I was more concerned about why they didn’t stick up for me and why nothing was being done.”
Wayne understands that being Black in a sport like hockey is not easy, no matter which country you play in. “Being a Black man in a predominantly White sport, and being successful I can see how a few would take offense,” said Simmonds. “It’s tough, but my parents raised me well, and they thought it would be tough in those situations.”
Pride for Simmonds came within his first three years in the league when he took part in the ‘Hockey is For Everyone’ initiative led by Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first Black hockey player. From ‘Ice Hockey In Harlem’ to Simmonds’ own ‘Wayne’s Road Hockey Warriors,’ which includes five Black NHL players, the league has taken steps to promote diversity over the years. “I am an advocate of expanding the league to all minorities not just Black and Caucasian players, and if I still have to pay the price for the integration of the sport of hockey, I am willing to do that for future generations.”
Troy Doris, current athlete enrolled in the USA Track and Field development program, points out that while race is still a factor within the sports world it can be dealt with accordingly.
“Since my sport has a large population of minorities there hasn’t been any situation I wasn’t able to resolve at the moment,” Doris stated. Doris believes that athletes, or more importantly people of similar races do not come together solely because society deems it so. “If you can’t understand other cultures or the different backgrounds people come from then you will run into inharmonious situations,” Doris said.
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