Achieving tolerance in sports has long been an elusive goal. Despite various strides made by those in the soccer world to curb racism on the field — from cracking down on racist remarks between players to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association announcing the decision to allow players to sport religious head garments during games — Japanese soccer officials chose a new approach: emptying the stadium. On Sunday, Japanese officials ordered premier J-League team the Urawa Red Diamonds to play for an empty audience as punishment for allowing fans to display racist signs during their March 8 match, according to Time. Though it was an unusual form of punishment, holding the team accountable for its fans and their actions sends a strong message to both the soccer community and the world.
The punishment came as a result of allowing fans in the stadium to put up racist signs reading “Japanese Only” in one of the entranceways of the stadium as a means of discouraging foreign fans from sitting in certain sections. What made the incident truly disturbing, however, was not merely the presence of the racist banners, but what the team didn’t do to address it.
“The team management says they learned about the banner being put up about an hour into the game,” Kirk Spitzler, Time’s Tokyo correspondent, told Public Radio International. “They said that they did not deem this to be racist, discriminatory or derogatory towards foreigners so they left it up.”
This isn’t the first time the Urawa Red Diamonds faced trouble with its fans. In 2010, the team was fined approximately $50,000 after their fans were found making taunting remarks toward the foreign players on the opposing team.
The fans responsible for the banners said they did not have any racist or derogatory intentions and that they merely didn’t want foreigners to sit with them in fear that they wouldn’t be able to fully understand and participate in the cheers. Upon further investigation, security guards in the stadium reported hearing discriminatory remarks made against foreigners. J-League officials decided to ban those responsible for the banners, and ordered the Urawa Red Diamonds to play their next game for an empty stadium — a decision that not only lost them an audience, but approximately more than $1 million in ticket sales, according to Public Radio International.
Though some might consider the punishment unfair toward the players who were ultimately not responsible for the actions of those in the stadium, the penalty sends the strong message to the rest of the soccer world: that such acts of discrimination don’t simply affect those to which they are aimed at, but that they truly affect everyone. By showing fans that such actions don’t simply result in pledges to “stamp out racism,” but rather result in real consequences, such actions can finally be taken seriously.
Sportsmanship isn’t just limited to the field. We can’t expect our players and officials to live up to certain standards of professionalism without holding those same expectations for their viewers. Hopefully in the 2014 FIFA World Cup this summer, fans will make the wise decision to leave the discriminatory banners behind.
Yasmeen Serhan is a sophomore majoring in international relations. She is also the Editorial Director of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Fridays.