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Emory historian Carl Suddler speaks at landmark European soccer summit seeking anti-racism, gender-equity actions
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Elaine Justice
Group photo, posing in Nottingham

Carl Suddler (far right) poses with top current and former European soccer players at a landmark conference tackling racism and gender inequity in the sport. In what Suddler described as a “Forrest Gump” moment, he inadvertently became the only non-soccer figure in the photo, after he was pulled into the shot by former player Christian Karembeu, a member of the French team that won the 1998 World Cup, while retrieving his iPad from the stage.

— Photo courtesy of Nottingham Forest Football Club.

When Carl Suddler, associate professor of history at Emory, traveled to the United Kingdom last month to speak at a conference aimed at tackling racism and gender equity in European football — also known as soccer — he expected it to be a good opportunity to share his expertise on the history of Black athlete activism in American sports with a different audience.

What he didn’t expect was a room full of media, ranging from the BBC to Sky News to The Guardian, gathered for what turned out to be a landmark meeting involving some of the leading names in European football.

Organized by Premier League’s Nottingham Forest Football Club in the United Kingdom and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, the meeting aimed to forge agreements on new anti-racism and gender equity actions that would be presented to the sport’s governing bodies, and other European clubs, as a first step toward change.

A who’s who of the soccer world was in attendance, including Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry, Christian Karembeu, Robert Pires, Olivier Dacourt, Zé Maria, Viv Anderson and Stan Collymore, together with current Forest players, along with prominent academics, industry leaders and experts to begin forging new ideas and solutions.

“I went to the conference thinking I was going to talk about [Muhammad] Ali and [Colin] Kaepernick,” says Suddler, who had been invited to speak about the history of activism in U.S. sports. But his plan changed quickly. “I was moved by the energy in the room, so I just kind of winged it.”

Suddler says he talked about why countries — not just the U.S. — have a difficult time accepting their racial past.

“My remarks were sparked by the players there,” he says. Players from Italy, England and France expressed their frustration at not knowing how to speak out against racism and gender inequities without it costing them their careers.

One comment in particular struck Suddler. “Thierry Henry, a French soccer legend, said, ‘As Black soccer players across the globe, we’re taught that soccer will allow us to fit in, and we accept that, but we also have to realize that it was never designed for us to belong.’ That was profound. It really resonated for me.”

Suddler grounded his prepared remarks around waves of activism in American sports history, but also emphasized that “many of these players who have addressed racism and inequity in the past have in some ways been afraid. But fear can inspire the kind of motivation to ultimately do something impactful. And being organized and being together in moments of fear helps.”

One outgrowth of the meeting was a pledge signed by a number of prominent current and former players committing themselves to publicly push for racial equality in European soccer. This included a statement regarding a recent racist act directed at AC Milan’s goalkeeper Mike Maignan.

Another outcome, says Suddler, is to continue conversations to consider creating an independent governing body or organization for professional Black soccer players across Europe to report to and rely on when racial discrimination happens, somewhat similar to the Black Players for Change organization in the U.S.

“I can’t imagine that this will be a short-term goal,” says Suddler, pointing out the challenges of organizing across European nations, “but ultimately that is what players spoke to coming out of the summit.”

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