The ugly side of football reared its head again this past week with AC Milan's black players being the subject of some fans' racist abuse during Milan's winter friendly against Pro Patia on Thursday.
Kevin-Prince Boateng's decision to leave the field in protest was wholeheartedly praised by the footballing community, as well as being applauded by the majority of the crowd in attendance at the game, who empathised with his frustrations.
Boateng's teammates followed him off the pitch in solidarity—another decision that was met with near-universal praise by the media and their peers alike.
The guilty parties in the stadium, the disgusting lot, were only a minority, but it takes just one clear voice to carry onto the pitch, especially in such an intimate setting as the Stadio Carlo Speroni.
ESPN writer James Horncastle, in reaction to the event, wrote this week that "Boateng and Milan's walk-off has a much greater significance around the globe than the latest trivial tiff between a hot-tempered player and manager."
"It can bring change. It can influence others on a major social issue."
Horncastle references Milan's legend Ruud Gullit's famous comments on the racism debate over two decades ago—that it was his belief that any player suffering racist abuse should "walk off the pitch."
But is it incumbent on footballers, on athletes even, to take a stand against the vile few in a sports setting?
Boateng's protest, in the best possible scenario, will spark change—change at the top of Italian football to better recognise a clear and present problem in the game.
These offenders must face face serious consequences for their actions—they should not just be thrown out of the stadium, but thrown straight into a jail cell.
Many in the Italian game have made concerted efforts to make theirs a more multicultural league, to be more accepting of players with varying cultural backgrounds.
It should not be the responsibility of footballers like Boateng to be the catalyst for this. As he says himself, "I'm sad and angry that I'm the one that has to take action" (via CNN).
However, the German-born Ghanaian international's vow to walk off the field in any other game in which he is subject to similar abuse, leads us into more murky territory.
Boateng told CNN, Friday that, "I don't care what game it is, a friendly, Italian league or Champions League match, I would walk off again."
In a hypothetical situation, with his team 1-0 up in a crucial Champions League or Serie A game, what's to stop a minority of fans abusing Boateng purely to provoke a reaction?
In stadiums filled with 60,000/70,000 fans, there will always be individuals with lesser morals and deeper-lying prejudices.
It cannot be the footballer's responsibility to address these people, but the authorities present at the games.
Former Milan player Clarence Seedorf believes that "they should just be identified and kicked out of the stadium. Leave the 90 percent that were enjoying the match and finish the game" (via BBC).
Boateng is 100 percent correct when he points out that he cannot just ignore the abuse and go home and pretend it didn't happen. But to abandon the field every time it occurs is a fatally flawed plan.
If these fans spew such hateful sounds purely to provoke a reaction, let the reaction be their arrest.
I genuinely fear that his comments will lead to more abuse, rather than less—that they will almost legitimize, rather than ridicule the racist few.
But there is still hope that they will be the spark for tighter regulations and more of a spotlight shone on the matter.
For if Boateng hadn't left the field at the Stadio Carlo Speroni in protest, not only would today's headlines read very differently, there probably wouldn't even be a story to report.
What have you made of the racism storm? Should footballers leave the field when suffering abuse from the stands?
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