BITE Focus

Play it forward: Changing the narrative to confront racist myths in sport

At the heart of this discussion at BITE LIVE 2020 was the importance of unpacking the myth of the Black athlete in sport and of examining what the creative industries as a whole can do to accelerate change.


Sport offers us a point of shared connection, a shared cultural touchpoint that brings together diverse communities in passion, pain and joy. As a result, it, along with its advertisers, has a unique power to help shift the narrative, particularly when it comes to racism.

Because to make meaningful change it is no longer good enough to not be racist but rather, we as individuals and an industry need to be anti-racist, to be actively combatting racism all the time, as Matt Readman wrote so eloquently in a piece for Campaign.

Readman, who is Head of Strategy at Dark Horses, was part of a discussion for BITE LIVE 2020 that explored the idea of changing the narrative to confront racist myths in sport. In a panel hosted by Creativebrief’s Editorial Director Nicola Kemp, Readman was joined by Ben Carrington, Professor of Sociology and Journalism and Michael Johnson, former professional football player and current Specialist Coach for the England U21 football team.

At the heart of the discussion was the importance of unpacking the myth of the Black athlete in sport and of examining what the creative industries as a whole can do to accelerate change.

If we’re not aware of this history, we can in our professional lives proliferate stereotypes.

Ben Carrington

Relying on stereotypes as shortcuts

As Kemp outlined, advertising has for years relied on stereotypes as shortcuts to connect with people. But in many ways, all this does is to do the opposite. Carrington opened by unpacking the historical context behind the Black athlete myth. He spoke about how, during the colonial period, myths were developed: “We see in this moment the formation of this idea that black people are not fully human. There’s a hierarchy within humanity.”

It was at this point, says Carrington, that a “racialised lens of looking at the world,” developed. This was when myths emerged about blackness, aligning characteristics such as strong, violent, powerful and even hypersexualised with an entire race. And, around the same time as these racial ideas were being formed, says Carrington, we saw the emergence of modern sport.

He explains that the thought was, “Black success in sport is not due to hard work or perseverance or cognitive ability but that black people have a natural propensity to run faster, jump higher, punch harder.” This myth seeps into how people understand sports; it is, says Carrington, propagated by sport. And in turn, he believes, “advertising tends to promote highly racialised stereotypes.” And it’s these stereotypes that can become internalised by those who view those adverts.

For Carrington, understanding the history is a vital part of helping to shift the narrative: “If we’re not aware of this history, we can in our professional lives proliferate stereotypes.” It’s something that Johnson explains we see play out in how Black players are positioned on the football pitch. Typically, they play in positions that require strength and speed. “The positions that are focused on creativity and intelligence are very rarely filled with black players,” Johnson adds.

Creating leadership opportunities

This reliance on stereotyping characteristics in Black footballers is, Johnson believes, one of the key issues when it comes to those players then moving into leadership positions. Because, as he asks, “How do you go upstairs to a position when your traits are based on your power?” When there’s been no focus on your intelligence and leadership at a playing level, it makes it near impossible to step higher up the sporting food chain once you retire.

Johnson highlights some shocking statistics about the diversity, or lack thereof, of the football industry; 33% of black players play the game in England. But 4% and less hold managerial positions while there is merely 2% in senior leadership positions. And “when you go into the boardroom,” says Johnson, “it’s non-existent.”

By being pigeonholed and stereotyped in your playing career, believes Johnson, as a Black player your next step is more often than not out of the industry altogether. “You need to lean on your leadership skills which most people, as a black player, don’t believe you have,” he explains. He points out that former England professional footballer Andy Cole had to go to a team at the bottom of the English professional pyramid, “just be given a chance,” to coach. As a result, he adds, “England’s missed out on a generation of quality coaches.”

I genuinely believe that sport advertising can make the world a better place.

Matt Readman

Holding advertising to account

Readman believes that advertising has an obligation to do something about the myth of the Black athlete which is, he says, “so important and so misunderstood.” He points to the power of advertising to move people, both emotionally and into action. “I genuinely believe that sport advertising can make the world a better place,” he says.

He sees this moment as an opportunity for brands and their agency partners to look for creative opportunities and insights: “The best insight is when something’s staring you right in the face, but no one notices it.” He invites advertisers to “flip that script,” to not simply focus on the overt moments of racism but rather focus on the “subtle, underlying force” behind it.

“It’s about time we start to use advertising to probe this myth and debunk it and unveil it for what it is which is complete fiction,” Readman says. It’s a standpoint that Carrington echoes, believing that business has a role to help bring about change.

But Carrington offers a provocation, an exploration into the ways in which advertising has in fact proliferated racist stereotypes for many years. He points to the 19th and early 20th century as being moments where the packaging of racism, or “commodity racism,” as he explains it, “was propagated more by advertising than by any other sphere.” He could, he says, “make an argument [that] for much of the 20th century, advertising has been complicit in forms of anti-black messaging.”

As a lecturer, Carrington shows his students adverts from the 60s and 70s which he says all of them find so clearly problematic. His question to the advertising industry is, “what will the students 30 years from now will be saying about advertising today?” He believes advertising needs to be held to account for its past because, he says, it “has a really pivotal role to play,” in directing and shifting societal narratives.

Carrington points to the work that Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at Procter & Gamble is doing at the company around both rectifying the ways in which the brand has propagated racial stereotypes up to this point and also working to ensure this doesn’t happen in its advertising moving forwards.

The time now, says Carrington is for “genuine self-reflection and uncomfortable conversations,” to examine the ethical position that individuals and companies take. It requires people to ask themselves, “are we willing to do the right thing?” What it comes down to is finding the ability to stand up for what we feel is right: “We need to reconsider some of the decisions we’ve made in the past and push back against the moments in which we compromise,” he explains.

Advertising’s role

While Carrington examines the damaging effects of historic advertising, Johnson focuses on the role brands have to play when it comes to grassroots sport because, he adds, this is “where a lot of the players actually come from.” He suggests brands could deliver workshops in community centres as an answer to the question, “How do you as the brand start to make the connection with those in the grassroots?”

Johnson also points to the huge impact brands have financially particularly within football. “When you see certain things in the sport that you don’t agree with, there’s an opportunity for brands to flex their responsibility,” he explains. This extends to the responsibility of broadcasters of the game. Many young people can no longer watch professional football because they don’t have subscriptions to services like Sky or BT Sport. “The TV stations themselves, the broadcasters, have started to create a rift between the grassroots and their product,” Johnson adds.

On top of brands’ active financial role in the game is the one they have to promote a broader range of role models, something Readman is keen to see. “We continue to tell the same story,” he says of advertising. The stories of black athletes need to be told through a different lens, focusing on attributes that haven’t historically been given attention. This often, Readman says, “isn’t part of the storytelling because it doesn’t fit with the narrative.”

He refers back to the reality that this is such a well-embedded myth, that of the Black athlete, that “it’s so hard for us as a society to debunk it.” Advertising, he believes, has a role to play in this, to actually focus on role models in a different way.

Whether that’s basketball superstar LeBron James driving voter registration or footballing powerhouse Marcus Rashford teaching British politicians what leadership looks like, the current turmoil has shone a light on the sporting role models who are so much more multifaceted and influential than any one dimensional stereotype of strength and sporting prowess. Telling different stories, says Readman, “can inspire a new generation in a totally different way.”

How best can an organisation really understand these issues if there’s a lack of diversity at the top table?

Michael Johnson

Reaching a pivot point

“We are at a pivot point,” believes Carrington. But, he adds, it’s “unclear right now the direction we’re going to go in.” He points out that the perpetuation of stereotypes in advertising is, to put it simply, “just lazy. It’s not creative.” “This idea that black athletes are powerful, strong and quick. Advertising plays a role in reproducing it,” he explains.

That needs to shift. He believes there are amazingly creative, intelligent people within the advertising industry. But often, the stereotype-littered work produced is not a reflection of that. Carrington explains: “It’s such tired, lazy tropes that are being reproduced and it does material damage. Images matter, these narratives matter. Because you’re telling stories about certain types of people and their attributes.”

He wants the industry to recognise that we are at a very important moment in which advertising can make a real difference. This starts with education: “you can’t do your work well unless you understand these wider issues.” It’s a point echoed by Readman who urges people to understand and read about the history, “because if you don’t understand the history, you’re just carrying the views of people from the past.”

But, believes Carrington, it also extends to who is hired, to who is given a seat at the table. “If you wait until your advertising goes live and then it blows up, there’s something fundamentally wrong in your process,” he says.

For Johnson, it comes down to people examining their reason why. He explains: “There has to be a purpose for what you’re doing. Once you have the purpose to it you will really willingly and meaningfully chase the objective for getting it done.” He reflects on the point he made at the beginning of the discussion about opening up leadership positions to a more diverse pool of people. Because, he asks, “how best can an organisation really understand these issues if there’s a lack of diversity at the top table?”

He also wants to point out that as a professional athlete, the qualities you exhibit are similar to those needed in business. If advertising can help to tell that story, to as he says, “match these traits up with your marketing,” it can help to break down the myth, he says, “that black athletes are just about power.”

Readman’s final piece of advice to the industry is a pertinent one: “Keep questioning and look at how we can tell different stories when it comes to advertising.” Stereotypes stop people from reaching their full potential, and it’s those same stereotypes that advertising can either choose to dismantle or perpetuate. Because there’s a shift afoot, a change in the air and the industry needs to begin to educate, to push creatively to tell different stories and help inspire a whole new generation of Black athletes.


Matt Readman, Michael Johnson and Ben Carrington were speaking at BITE LIVE 2020. To watch the full conversation, visit the dedicated event page, Play it forward: Changing the narrative to confront racist myths in sport