By William Lacy Swing

Why are so many of the world’s great footballers migrants? Or its basketball stars? Or a growing proportion of the players among the U.S.’ Major League Baseball clubs?

Perhaps it’s because in a truly global economy, sports create a migrant meritocracy few other industries can match. Winning, after all, is not everything to a sports fan. It’s the only thing. So where you come from, what language you speak or what religion you were raised in have little impact on where you’re allowed to kit out. If you’re good enough, you’re welcomed to the team.

Few fans stop to think of it, but their feelings of triumph when seeing a rocketing football crease the back of the football net, or watching the winning shot drop through a basketball hoop, are moments of utter joy made possible because of their society’s openness to outsiders.

Sports, and the chance to enjoy them, link intrinsically via migration—for one reason, because migrants, by providing the inputs that make our economies hum, give us the freedom to fill our free time with fun.

But they’re linked, too, because the athletes themselves so often are migrants. In many ways the world’s top professional and amateur athletes enjoy a version of the level playing field most of the planet’s upwardly (and outwardly) mobile migrants can only dream of. That’s because sports, with their clear rules of play, allow athletic migrants the chance to compete unhindered in multiple arenas based on their demonstrable skill and proven character.

It’s such an obvious notion that today, we rarely think about the role of migrants in sports. Except when we’re forced to, especially in football where, too often, there is ugliness in the Beautiful Game.

Displays of racism and or xenophobia, sadly, have not disappeared from sports stadia. Fans, many emboldened by politicians eager to fan the flames of resentment that incite violence against migrants, hurl not only insults at African athletes on the football pitch, but also bottles, bananas and other garbage, even chairs, and sometimes force games to stop amid taunting, anti-African slogans. 

Last month (22 February 2018) the Italian soccer team Atalanta was charged by UEFA after their fans repeatedly aimed racist taunts at Borussia Dortmund forward Michy Batshuayi during their Europa League meeting. Earlier in the season the club was punished for similar abuse aimed at Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly. Batshuayi was born in Belgium, and is of Congolese ancestry. Koulibaly was born in France, of parents who emigrated from Sénégal. But it’s not just Europe.

We hear of discrimination against, to cite just one example, amateur baseball players of Haitian descent who are deprived of opportunities to play in the Dominican Republic, one of the world’s great athletic proving grounds, where many poor children ultimately reach the bottom rungs of a ladder they can climb towards an education, if not a lucrative career in sports.

We also learn of athletes who are abused by so-called “scouts” who operate fraudulently, often behaving more as human traffickers than true sports agents by exploiting teenage African athletes then abandoning them in Europe after injury ends their dream.

So that is why this Wednesday the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations’ migration agency that I direct, is launching a campaign, linked to the UN’s TOGETHER Campaign, focused on opposition to xenophobia and racism in the sporting world.

As Wednesday is the 52nd International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we’re kicking off the campaign with a focus on football, with our plan to highlight the contributions of athletes across the world as they battle racism and xenophobia.

We are hardly the first to point out this struggle.

Kick It Out is one of football’s standout equality and inclusion organizations, borne out of the ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign, established in 1993 in response to widespread calls from clubs, players and fans to tackle racist attitudes existing within the game. Kick It Out was then established as a body in 1997 as it widened out its objectives to cover all aspects of inequality and exclusion.

Former French footballer Thierry Henry founded Stand Up Speak Up in 2005 to encourage others to denounce racist incidents in sports. There are also other prominent campaigns such as the Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) which is committed to tackling discrimination through football’s inclusive power, based on the principle that the game, as the most popular sport in the world, belongs to all and can propel social cohesion.

Meanwhile, just this past January, members of Rome’s Lazio soccer team donned t-shirts emblazoned with the image of a teen-aged Anne Frank as a rebuke to their own fans’ use of anti-Semitic imagery. Recently Blaise Matuidi, another French footballer who currently plays as a midfielder for the Italian team Juventus, spoke out against the ugliness of the mob. “Nobody should want [racist abuse] to happen,” said the Toulouse native, who is of mixed Angolan-Congolese ancestry. He was reacting to a series of racist taunts levelled at him during Italian league matches, and raised the possibility of players walking off the pitch in the event of racist abuse during the World Cup.

The upside: athletes are often among society’s most admired celebrities, and their success translates into a minority community’s rapid integration into the larger society. You can go all the way back to the 1880s, when the U.S.’ industrial revolution was creating the world’s newest leisure class that would soon grow addicted to sports. That was when a burly, Boston-born Irish-American named John L. Sullivan became the first internationally-recognized heavyweight boxing champion—thereby breaking the stereotype of Irish emigres as undisciplined ne’er do wells, incapable of excellence (or abstaining from alcohol).

In the decades to follow, Sullivan’s example would be replicated by Jewish, Italian, Latino and Caribbean sports stars. In our own time, Jeremy Lin—a Harvard educated basketball player who grew up in California’s Orange County—recast the image of Asian immigrants, while Haitian-Americans like Pierre Garcon and Emmanuel Lamur, both of the U.S.’ National Football League, have used their celebrity to focus attention  on their troubled homeland and challenge racism and xenophobia in their families’ adopted country.

We know most fans are not racist, and no team or professional sports organization today indulges in the bygone prejudices that kept African-Americans from competing at the top levels of most sports in the U.S., or deprived Jews of places they had earned on Olympic squads. Sports do mirror their societies, and societies today collectively abhor racism and xenophobia. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be silent when faced with practices we cannot tolerate. That’s why we are launching this campaign today.