Understanding privilege in sport

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Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels.

In 2012, I travelled to the Eastern Cape as part of a Transformation in Sport series of storytelling the media company I worked for at the time was working on. 

I wanted to investigate Dale College – a school that’s nurtured some of the country’s top sports talent – and what they’d managed to achieve that year. A former Model C school, this establishment had managed to field an all-black starting XV in that fiercely contested school’s league. The league featured some of the top rugby-playing schools – Queen’s College and Grey High School, to name a few – so they were up against the fierce competition.

What surprised our editors was not the fact that the team had fielded an all-black starting XV, but that they had gone unbeaten all season. They were on course to finish the season without a loss against their name – a feat that hadn’t been achieved in years. 

I spent time at the school, with the coach, chatting to parents of the players, flew in past pupils and players to chat, and attended practice sessions interviewing the players themselves. 

I also tracked down sports administrators in the region who had been involved at the highest level; I spoke to Cheeky Watson, and former Springbok team manager Zola Yeye as part of my investigation. 
I learnt a lot about privilege on that trip. 

What struck me most about the interviews I conducted was how matter-of-fact the coach was about the racial make-up of the team. Dale College is in King William’s Town, where the population is mostly black, so of course the team would be made up of nothing but black players. There were one or two white kids on the bench, which kind of matched the demographics of the town. 

But some of the parents felt the team was all black because the white kids didn’t want to play on the same field as the black kids. What a strange observation in 2012…

I felt the school and its environment was a great microcosm of the country – the demographics, the breakdown, the opportunities afforded those who attended the school. 

Why in 2012 were there so few black players playing Springbok rugby, when at school level, there were entire teams of black players on course for a clean sweep of victories? Why did the sentiment persist that black people just aren’t that good at rugby, or that they didn’t have good rugby brains? Trust me, I had heard these arguments, and some persist today. It comes down to privilege. 

During our interview in Port Elizabeth, Zola told me a story of young black sportsmen given an opportunity to excel at rugby schools. 

You take two kids – one white, one black – and they both have similar levels of skill. You put them in the same school, in the same class. They have access to equal opportunities – the same level of education, the same coaching – but there’s simply no equity. 

When they finish their school day, the white kid’s mom comes to pick him up from school. The black kid has to stay at school. The white kid goes home and has something to eat and get changed and ready for practice. The black kid eats the extra sandwiches he’s been packed and changes in the cloakroom. The white kid’s mom drops him back at school, fresh and ready for training. The black kid pulls on his crumpled rugby togs and tired boots. They train together, but which kid do you think is going to be more alert on the pitch? 

Let’s fast-forward to matchday. It’s Saturday. The white kid’s parents are there to watch him and cheer him on. Where are the parents of the black kid? Maybe it’s a boarding school. Maybe they live far away. Maybe they’re working. They want to be there, they just can’t afford the luxury of spending Saturday morning watching their child play rugby. The white kid’s parents buy him boerewors rolls and Powerade between matches. The black kid is eating oranges. Same school. Same team. Same coaching staff. Completely different experiences. 

Which kid’s appetite for sport grows? For whom does it become a burden?

Yes, but there are those who excel despite these circumstances, it’s what makes them stronger, I hear you say. Yes, and those are the ones who make it to the highest level. 

You see, the black kid has to be ten times better, ten times more committed, ten times more driven than the white kid in order to get noticed. The regular ones are invisible. 

Equal opportunities and equality don’t equate to equity. 

Here’s where the problem comes in – the white kid and his parents don’t understand this. To them, both children have access to exactly the same resources, without taking into consideration the importance of a support structure. 

Parents I spoke to at Dale College told of how players are poached as young as 16 by unions like the Sharks, the Blue Bulls and Western Province, and taken into their youth structures. 

They’re given a bunk in a hostel, given coaching, meal plans, all sorts of support, but imagine the situation – you’re a black teen whose first language is isiXhosa, plucked out of your rural Eastern Cape village, plonked into a hostel in Pretoria where all your teammates speak Afrikaans. 

It’s a complete culture shock. 

One parent told me that his eldest child had spent his entire playing career playing as a wing – big, fast, great hand speed, accurate passing, devastating in defence. Once he’d been plucked by the Bulls, owing to his size, he was told to play prop. 

His performance suffered, he got demoted and sent to play for Pretoria University, and completely lost his drive for the sport.

We can’t expect players who are given equal opportunities to be on the same footing, not until we address our deep-rooted inequality.

And when a black sportsman at the top of his game like Lungi Ngidi says “Black Lives Matter”, we need to understand that it doesn’t mean white, privileged lives don’t matter.

It’s not a call to defend your privilege or what you’ve done to address inequality. It’s not an invitation to poke holes at his journey. 
It’s an opportunity for introspection.

It’s an opportunity to recognise that after 26 years, some animals remain more equal than others.

Lance Witten is the Chief Content Officer for African News Agency: Syndication and has two decades of experience working in media.