Local soccer's reckoning with racism, on the pitch and in the stands
Players say they're dealing with racial slurs during games and refs who are indifferent when they report them
As the spotlight continues to shine on racism in Canadian police forces, board rooms and classrooms, local sports teams are speaking out about the slurs they face on the soccer field and the indifference they encounter from game officials.
More than 500,000 players are registered with Ontario Soccer, which governs leagues in the province that support the beautiful game for children up to adults.
But for players like Elvis Lufungulo, lacing up also means bracing for the insults that might be hurled his way as he plays defence for the African Caribbean United soccer team in London, Ont.,
"People are calling us names, they're calling us the N word, people are telling us to go back to our country, even though many of our players are born in Canada," Lufungulo said. "That should not be okay."
The racism comes from fans at the sidelines as well as players on opposing teams, he said, and has gotten so bad that he has stopped inviting his younger family members to games, lest they hear the inappropriate slurs.
Lufungulo's team is part of the Western Ontario Soccer League (WOSL), one of three teams that have players who are predominantly not white.
Some refs unwilling to act
Members of the Gorkhali football club, who are predominantly from Nepal, also face frequent racism, a team official said, as do those on the Caribbean Stars team, also in the same league.
"We experience racism when we play, and the refs is there, you think he can protect you, but they say they didn't hear anything," said Hanson Aristilde, president and coach of the Caribbean Stars.
"There's nothing you can do when you hear those words. If we attack the player who said it, it's our players who are the ones who get the red card. I spend a lot of time telling my players not to react."
Refs can only officially report bad behaviour if they see or hear it, according to the laws that govern the game, which come down from FIFA, the international governing body of the sport, and which are filtered down through Canada Soccer, to Soccer Ontario, then to the district, league and team level.
"A lot of the time, the refs say, 'I didn't hear anything,' and even if they did, they just say 'Don't say that,' to the other guys," Lufungulo said.
Racism on many levels
While the racism on the field is overt, it also shows up in more insidious ways, said Colette Chapman, the president of the African Caribbean United team.
She said predominantly Black teams have faced many challenges, including getting the lights turned out on them while they're changing in club houses or not given access to change rooms.
"The league and the district are starting to act now but, let's be honest, racism didn't just start a couple months ago when the world started focusing on it," Chapman said.
"This stuff is not new. It's been going on for years."
Many of Chapman's players join the team for camaraderie with other people of colour, and it's disheartening to see them subjected to racial slurs, she said. For years, she's been pushing WOSL and the Elgin Middlesex Soccer Association (EMSA), which overseas the league, to force team officials to take mandatory racism and implicit bias training.
"It can't be optional. It has to be mandatory," she said.
Some movement to change
The league had been in talks with someone to provide the bias training for coaches, refs, and team executives when COVID-19 sidelined things.
"Racism in soccer is the elephant in the room and we want to attack it," said Abbi Lezizidis, WOSL's secretary and a ref in the league.
"We talk about problems with teams, but really, it's people on teams. There's self-governance and until now it's been left at the bottom, but we are the leaders, we need to do something about it."
Refs being allowed to throw players out of games even if they didn't hear a racial slur, but heard about it from others, would change the game for the better, Lezizidis said.
"As a league official, if I am allowed to tell the player to get off the field, to go home, that would be huge. If I had the authority to kick out players, even if I didn't hear what was said, that would change the dynamics."
Diversity committees created
That kind of change to reffing would need to come from Ontario Soccer, but for now, the EMSA, which governs clubs in Elgin, Middlesex, Oxford, Huron, Bruce and Norfolk counties in southwestern Ontario, is looking at having all team and league officials take that implicit bias training, said John Dutot, president of EMSA.
"The main focus is going to be systemic racism within the district and implicit bias, when somebody does something and they don't realize they're doing it," Dutot said. "We want to make sure that everyone feels safe playing in our leagues."
The association is still working out the details, but is hoping to make the training mandatory for anyone wanting to play outdoor soccer in 2021, Dutot said.
A subcommittee has also been created to look at some of the issues brought up by Chapman.
Soccer Ontario has done something similar, said Johnny Misley, the organization's CEO.
"We thought about putting something on social media about our support of Black Lives Matter but we thought, 'What are we actually doing about racism?' Misley said.
The organization has created a diversity subcommittee that will review all of the rules, regulations and guidelines, and will make quarterly recommendations.
Misley said refs are governed by FIFA rules, but that anyone can submit a complaint about racial slurs. Those are dealt with at the district level, but can be appealed further up the chain.
The mandatory Respect In Sport training for all officials now includes a module on racism, but there's talk of expanding it, he added.