Queen’s Professor provides insight into racial abuse following EURO 2020 loss

The Journal discusses the intersectionality of race and sport with Professor Courtney Szto

Players were targets of racist remarks following the game.

On July 11, Italy defeated England in a tense penalty shootout to win the UEFA European Football Championship (EURO) 2020.

As Italians celebrated, the aftermath in England saw the beautiful game converge head-on with racism. England’s loss incited torrent online racist abuse from fans towards Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka—the three players who missed their penalty kicks, all of whom are Black.

The Journal sat down with Courtney Szto, Assistant Professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, to discuss the factors underpinning this reaction from England soccer fans.

“It kind of seemed like a regular day in sport, unfortunately,” Szto said.

As a professor who explores how sport can be used to address issues of injustice, she’s used to stories like this appearing on her Twitter feed.

The idea of citizenship is key to understanding why England fans were so quick to pin the blame for their team’s loss on Rashford, Sancho, and Saka. Szto explained that citizenship is a way to figure out who is “us” and who is “them,” and sport is one way we can draw that line.

“It ends up being a contingent form of acceptance where if you’re doing well, then you’re fully accepted, you are the beacon of what is good and what is right in our nation […] and when you’re doing poorly, we want to expel you from the country,” she said.

Wearing the England jersey should’ve been enough, but it wasn’t.

Szto added that, historically, England fans have hung effigies of David Beckham—but they don’t try to send him elsewhere. Beckham will always belong while Rashford, Sancho, and Saka’s belonging and acceptance is conditional, and “that makes it very apparent that it is about race.”

According to Szto, a related problem underlying this incident is that we often incorrectly rely on sport to fix society’s problems. We’re taught that it does magical things—but this is a big ask, considering that it’s just a ball and someone running around.

“Sport cannot be anti-racist in an otherwise racist society. You cannot have a racist society and then you go into an area or a field and suddenly all those things in the rest of the world don’t matter,” she said.

Instead, sport adds complicated narratives to racial injustices. This was evident when England’s passion for football became a racist outburst the instant Saka missed that crucial final kick. Three tremendous athletes had their talents erased, identities revoked, and dignities stained—all because they didn’t get a ball in the back of a net.

The racial abuse towards Rashford, Sancho, and Saka was condemned by teammates, management, the British government, and the monarchy. A hate-crime investigation is underway. A new mural of Rashford was unveiled after the one in his hometown was vandalized. There is talk of banning England fans from future games.

While these actions and condemnations pour in, Szto believes that the solution will also require a more comprehensive undertaking from sports fans.

Because sport cannot be a sacred space where the rest of society’s problems disappear, fans must recognize it as just one space among others, including workplaces and classrooms, where they can create a conversation and uplift racialized people.

“Sport is supposed to be fun. I think we forget that it does some great work, and we have some wonderful athlete activists right now, but they can’t do it by themselves. We have to take a good hard look at what we do every day in order to support them appropriately,” Szto said.


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