Monday, May 20, 2024

Bukayo Saka: Hero

It’s a long time ago, but I’m trying to remember what I was like at 19.

I was in college, ‘studying’ broadcasting and journalism. I didn’t make the most of the hair I had back then. I drank. I smoked. I spent countless hours in second hand record shops delving through their racks of vinyl to see if I could find some musical treasure. Sometimes I did (an original 7″ of Space Oddity, for example).

In general though, I was bit of an eejit. Not bad or anything, just young and naive and set to learn all the lessons that life teaches you at that age and beyond. The things you think you know as a teenager but, as you experience stuff, you realise that your worldview is pretty primitive. The best lesson you can ever learn is that other people can teach you more than you ever thought they could. I’m lucky I realised that, and it’s unfortunate that too many people don’t.

I look at Bukayo Saka at 19 and I think about what he has had to endure in the last few days. He is clearly a gifted footballer whose hard work and dedication has brought him the chance of a glittering career. It all lies ahead of him. Hopefully he’s got many years at the top level and hopefully those years will be in the red and white of Arsenal.

Yet because he missed a penalty, he is seen by some as nothing, because that is how you have to view somebody to abuse them because of their race. How do you come to terms with that? Even if you realise that 99% of people love you, have your back, don’t blame you, or simply see you as just a person, knowing that terrible 1% are out there must be stomach churning.

In one part of the statement he released yesterday, he said:

“I knew instantly the kind of hate that I was about to receive and that is a sad reality that your powerful platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages.”

It was directed at social media companies, I think he’s right to do it, and maybe we need to stop and think about this. As I said earlier in the week, social media is not the cause of racism, but a conduit for it. However, how inured to the inevitability of abuse are we that Bukayo Saka can say that, and we can think ‘Of course’ and not consider that as a deep, fundamental flaw in the media we willingly take part in?

Man misses penalty = racist abuse and nobody is in the least bit surprised. It’s a shame that we have created, and continue to participate in, a thing which continues to manifest such a grotesque element. Which isn’t to say that it’s our fault, but maybe we as the majority are not doing enough about it. What is that saying? It is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist. That’s where we are with Twitter, with Facebook, with Instagram, and it’s to Bukayo Saka’s credit that even during what’s probably the most difficult experience of his life so far, he’s thinking of other people too.

Imagine Bukayo Saka, 19 years old, the weight of that penalty on his shoulders, knowing fine well how long it’s been since England have won a tournament, but willing to step up and take that responsibility. Imagine missing. We’ve all had sporting failures, I’m sure, but nothing of this magnitude. The sinking feeling that you’ve let your teammates down (you haven’t, but that’s how you feel); you’ve failed the manager who gave you opportunity (you haven’t, but that’s how you feel); the millions of English people who were hoping, counting on you, you’ve disappointed them (you have, but that’s what happens in sport sometimes); and with all that swirling around in your head you also immediately think that this is a chance for racists to abuse you, and you know that they can because of the platforms which allow them to do it.

I don’t know how I would cope at 19 with something like that. I don’t know how I’d cope at 49 with something like that. I am in no way comparing my experiences with his, but 20 years into doing this blog, I’ve had some experiences with people who don’t like what I do or don’t like me. It can be disconcerting, no matter how well you think you can compartmentalise it, but in the end it’s trivial nonsense from someone who doesn’t like your opinion about a football match or a football player or a football team.

Bukayo Saka has to deal with abuse which strikes at the very essence of who he is. A young black man, abused because he missed a penalty, but targetted specifically because of the colour of his skin. Jack Grealish could have missed that 5th kick, and there’d have been abuse, but none of it would have the weight of monkey or banana emojis, the N word and all the other filth he, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were subjected to.

“I will not let that moment or the negativity that I’ve received this week break me,” he said in his statement.

The strength. The power to resist. It’s incredible. It’s both horrendous that 19 year old football player even has to make a statement like this because of something that went wrong in sport, but also inspiring that he has this iron will and courage to speak out and to demolish those idiots who seek to undermine him as a player and a person. I am in awe of what he has done and how he has done it, and the same goes for Sancho and Rashford who, like Saka, have demonstrated the very best of who we can all be.

The final thing he says is this: Love always wins. I wish more people understood that this is as true as it gets. All the day to day stuff, the things we think are important, the things we get hung up and angry about, most of them don’t mean shit. What counts is you, your family, your friends and, if you can do it, spreading love beyond that. Some of us can go a little way, some go a long way and they are genuine heroes.

Bukayo Saka is just 19 years of age, and he’s already one of the latter.

What a man. ❤️

Brand new Arsecast for you below, enjoy.


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