GENEVA - The United Nations is urging an end to what it calls the crime of racism in sport. The global body is joining forces with football (soccer) officials and players in an effort to kick racism out of "the beautiful game." The trigger for this move was the defiant action of AC Milan's midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng who walked off the pitch during an exhibition match in January to protest racist taunts.
A video clip captures the sports announcer's disbelief at the sight of AC Milan's Kevin-Prince Boateng, followed by his teammates, walking off the football pitch. They were protesting the racist insults hurled at the midfielder during a friendly match against Italian lower division club Pro-Patria.
Boateng is not apologetic for ending the game after 25 minutes of play.
"I interrupted the game and kicked the ball into the stands because I was angry and offended by the racist insults that were coming from the crowd. The report that the entire AC Milan team had presented a resolute and united front against racist abuse made headline news all over the world. This is the reason why I am here today," he said.
Boateng is one of several football players and officials invited by the United Nations to participate in a panel discussion on the elimination of racial discrimination, with a focus on sport. The 26-year old footballer was born in Berlin of a Ghanaian father and German mother. He plays for the Ghanaian National team.
Boateng says he does not regret his action because racism, if left alone, does not go away. It has to be confronted or it will spread.
"I just think we have to stand up against it every time. If it is a championship final or a World Cup final or just a friendly game-how we say against a team of the fourth division. So-again we come to the point. I hope I will never have to do it again. But, if it was a final, I would have done the same," he said.
Legendary midfielder and former captain of the French national football team, Patrick Vieira, supports Boateng. He says racism is unacceptable and has no place on the pitch.
"I think when you look back at how things were and how things are today, I think him walking outside of the field improved the situation…and I think him walking out is a massive step and that is why we are going forward," he said.
Nevertheless, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay notes the world continues to witness deeply unpleasant acts during sporting events, including during football matches.
"They have included insults, offensive chants, Nazi salutes, petitions against hiring certain players and even systematic denial of opportunities to play or join football teams based on color or nationality. These deplorable acts of bigotry and prejudice have no place in the 21st century. They are an affront to human rights," he said.
Pillay calls racism a gross human rights violation. She says it is a crime and must be treated as such by sports authorities.
Union of Europe Football Associations (UEFA) Adviser, William Gaillard agrees. He says UEFA has a zero tolerance policy for racism and discrimination. He adds his organization singles out and sanctions behavior deemed inappropriate in a football stadium.
"And, we are proud of it. Racism, anti-Semitism, gender discrimination, homophobia are just as unacceptable on the football pitch as they are in society at large," he said.
Gaillard argues football administrators have a duty to fight the evils of racism, but he does not offer any specific measures for doing so.
Federico Addiechi, head of social responsibility programs for FIFA, the international governing body of football, says FIFA is establishing an anti-racism task force to deter racism. As part of the program, he says the task force will seek to educate fans and inspire positive attitudes and behavior throughout the game.
"We know fines are not and may not be enough. Deducting points from a team could send a very strong message. Relegating or eliminating a team from a competition can send an even stronger message. If you tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism, you will face the consequences. This is the message that players need us as football authorities to send," he said.
The members of the task force say football does not need more rules and most governments do not need more laws to tackle racism in sport. What is lacking, they say, is greater will by football authorities and governments to enforce the measures already on the books.