Through sport we learn about glory and defeat, the sacrifices made to be the best, the intoxicating joy of victory, and the pain of the near-misses. But sport can be much more than that; it can shine a light on injustice, it can educate; it can change minds.
Over half a century after John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists as they stood on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, West Indies cricketers walked out into the heart of Southampton’s Ageas Bowl for the opening day of the first Test match against England wearing one black glove each. Both teams took the knee before the start of play. The West Indies players raised their fists too.
The sight of players, coaching staff, umpires and officials taking a knee was visually powerful, a continuation of athletes across the world drawing attention to, and supporting, Black Lives Matter since the brutal death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
However, the day will mainly be remembered for what happened away from the field, for a four-minute live monologue by Michael Holding, a former West Indies great and now a Sky Sports commentator, during one of the day’s many rain delays.
‘Unflinching masterpiece on race’
His impassioned words forced viewers to pause and listen. The audience may have tuned in to watch cricket, a sport intertwined with British colonialism; what they got was a lesson in history and institutional racism.
Holding, one of the game’s finest pace bowlers, a member of the brilliant West Indies team of the 1970s and 1980s, talked about the lack of education around what Black men and women have achieved, the representation of Christ as a White man, the video of a White woman calling the police on a Black man who was birdwatching in Central Park, and the subconscious bias among pre-school teachers against Black students.
English newspaper The Guardian described the broadcast as an “unflinching masterpiece on race.” The Daily Telegraph wrote that Holding’s impassioned plea was “the finest spells the ground has seen.” Holding’s monologue has had over six million views on Twitter.
“What people need to understand is that these things stem from a long time ago, hundreds of years ago,” said the 66-year-old Jamaican.
“The dehumanization of the Black race is where it started. People will tell you that ‘Oh it’s a long time ago, get over it.’ No, you don’t get over things like that.
“[…] Everybody knows Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Thomas Edison invented a light bulb with a paper filament; it burnt out in no time at all. Can you tell me who invented the filament that makes these lights shine throughout?
Nobody knows because he was a Black man and it was not taught in schools. Lewis Howard Latimer invented the carbon filament to allow lights to continuously shine. Who knows that?
“Everything should be taught. I remember my school days; I was never taught anything good about Black people. And you cannot have a society that is brought up like that, both White and Black, that only teaches what is convenient to the teacher.
“History is written by the conqueror, not by those that are conquered. History is written by the people who do the harm, not by the people who get harmed. And we need to go back and teach both sides of history and until we do that, and educate the entire human race, this thing will not stop.”
‘I forced myself to watch’
Holding’s words had followed a recorded segment which featured Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first Black woman to play cricket for England, talking about their experiences of racism in the game.
Rainford-Brent went on to point out that there are no Black members on the England and Wales Cricket Board, the UK’s governing body, and no Black captains among the 18 counties that make up the top two tiers of English cricket’s pyramid.
The uncompromising half-hour of broadcasting was concluded by Holding’s fellow commentator Nasser Hussain, the Indian-born former captain of the England team, considered as one of his country’s most astute cricketing leaders.
“People will be tuning in and saying: ‘Not this again,'” Hussain said. “All I’ll say to those people who say ‘not again,’ I sat there six weeks ago and put Channel 4 news on and watched a Black man being killed in front of my eyes, and my natural reaction was to look away.
“And the next time that footage came on, because of the protests, I forced myself to watch because I felt something inside of myself say: ‘You’ve been looking away too long.'”
West Indies captain Jason Holder said Holding’s words had had an impact on him, telling reporters: “I saw the interview with Mikey and I felt in my veins.”
On Thursday, a tearful Holding told Sky News’ Mark Austin he was thinking about his parents during his emotional plea, revealing that his mother’s family had stopped talking to her “because her husband was too dark.”
Holding’s fearsome bowling — after leaving his hand the ball would come at batsmen in a blur — had earned him the nickname “Whispering Death.”
Once described as “possibly the most beautiful athlete to grace a cricket field,” by journalist and former player Mike Selvey, in retirement Holding has always been a wonderfully eloquent commentator.
In the sociocultural documentary “Fire in Babylon” about the golden era of Caribbean cricket, beginning in 1975 and continuing into the early 1990s, Holding talks openly in a film about a generation of players who went on to crush the established powers, excelling in a sport which was used as an instrument of colonialism by the English.
During a 15-year period, the West Indies, a team drawn from 15 countries with a shared history of slavery, racism and imperialism, of which many had won independence from the British in the 1960s and ’70s, did not lose a Test series. It is still regarded as one of the finest teams in history.
The film explains how the team’s dominance had political ramifications, inspiring Caribbean people around the world, “It was an eye-opener to come to England and see how much cricket meant to West Indians living in England and how they used it to lift themselves,” Holding says.
It was during the tour of England in 1976 that this West Indies team truly announced itself to the world. England’s captain Tony Greig had irritated and offended, telling the BBC that he intended to “make them grovel,” a remark which had connotations of racism. Also of significance to the team was that the words were uttered by a South African-born player during the days of apartheid in the country of his birth.
“A whole other things needed defending, other than the cricket ball itself,” says Antiguan batsman Vivian Richards, another of that era regarded as an all-time great, in the film.
Though Holding has said he became aware of the political implications of the West Indies’ success later on in life, that was not the case for every member of the team with Richards wearing a wristband in the colors of the Rastafarian movement. “Green for the land itself,” he says. “Gold for the wealth that was stripped away. Red for the blood that was shed.”
‘Nothing can be changed until it is faced’
If it wasn’t already obvious after these last few weeks, Sky Sports and Holding have shone a light on how far society still must progress before there is equality for all.
Holding highlighted the painful experiences of Black people, the oppression that still exists, as has British sprinter Bianca Williams this week.
Williams has accused London’s Metropolitan Police of “racial profiling.” She had been in a West London neighborhood with her partner, Portuguese 400-meter record holder Ricardo dos Santos, and their three-month-old son when they were stopped by police last weekend.
Footage of the incident, posted on social media by the pair’s trainer and Olympic gold medalist Linford Christie, appears to show two people — although their faces aren’t visible — being pulled out of a car.
When asked to step outside the car by a police officer, a man is heard asking “For what?” Once out of the car, two other officers approach the woman who tells them, “He didn’t do anything.” The woman grows increasingly distressed and shouts: “My son is in the car […] I don’t want you to look after him.” Officers tell her to “relax” and “get out of the car.”
Williams told CNN her first priority was the safety of her young son and brought into focus once again what parents of young Black children have to contemplate.
“We’re raising a Black boy who’s then going to be going to school by himself and he’s going to be doing things by himself. We’re going to have to get used to it and to teach him that … he can be stopped by the police because of the color of his skin. It’s just shocking that we have to tell our son this to be honest,” Williams told CNN.
Williams received an apology from the Met on Wednesday for “distress caused” but the organization did not apologize for the traffic stop itself.
In the words of James Baldwin, which opened Sky Sports’ exceptional coverage on Wednesday: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”