Racist acts in sports were on the rise in 2017

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In a column published in January 2017, I wrote about the alarming rate of increase in acts of racism in the United States, in general and in sports, in 2016. I hoped 2017 would be a year in which the world embraced the belief that we are all cut from the same human fabric. That was, of course, overly optimistic in this divisive world.

According to research from the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, acts of racism in sports in the U.S. increased from 31 in 2016 to 41 in 2017. Internationally, there were 79 racist acts in sports.

The year will be remembered, in part, for expanded athlete activism, as we saw an unprecedented number of athletes take a stand -- or a knee -- against racial and social injustice in 2017. Events in 2016 -- such as more than 100,000 people lining the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, for Muhammad Ali's funeral service; ESPN giving LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul a platform at the ESPYs; and Colin Kaepernick risking his career by kneeling for the national anthem -- set the stage for 2017 to become such a pivotal time for sport and social justice.

Despite these courageous acts, racism continued to permeate sports. In May, Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said that he was berated with racial slurs and that a bag of peanuts was thrown at him during a game against at Boston's Fenway Park. Jones later called it one of the worst experiences of his 12-year career. This incident led to support from a number of athletes, including Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, who said he had experienced similar indignities.

Cleveland Cavaliers star James was asked about the incident and said, "Racism, we know, exists. ... For me as a father, I try to give my kids the blueprint on how life is gonna be. But at the end of the day, I can only tell them so much, and they have to live it themselves. For me, I just try to be respectful, for one, respectful to others, and I feel like if you do that consistently, then I believe the karma will come back to you."

A few weeks later, on the eve of the Cavaliers and Warriors meeting for the third straight year in the NBA Finals, a racial slur was spray-painted on the front gate of James' Los Angeles home. Visibly shaken by the news, James addressed the media and said, "No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. We got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America."

James was not the only person on the receiving end of such hatred at home. Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin received hate mail that criticized his coaching, called him the N-word and ended with a threat. Sumlin's wife, Charlene, posted a photo of the letter on social media.

Fan behavior made headlines numerous times throughout 2017. A Missouri bar owner taped Marshawn Lynch and Colin Kaepernick jerseys as a doormat to the entrance of his establishment; placed side by side, the jerseys spelled "Lynch Kaepernick." Somebody hung a dummy of Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict from a noose near the Pittsburgh Steelers' stadium.

Five football players from Creston High School in Iowa were kicked off the team after a photo of them wearing KKK hoods, brandishing a firearm, burning a cross and showcasing a Confederate flag went viral. Another story from Iowa made headlines after a racist social media post about Clear Creek Amana football player Darius Moore who knelt during the national anthem. The Snapchat posting showed a picture of Moore with a message reading, "kick this f---ing n----- off the football team like honestly who the f--- kneels for the national anthem."

International stories of racism in sports made headlines in the U.S. FK Rad of the Football Association of Serbia has had a history of unruly fans provoking opposing teams with slurs and chants. During a game last year against crosstown rival Partizan Belgrade, fans hung a racist banner and made monkey noises and gestures toward Brazilian midfielder Everton Luiz. An announcement over the PA system to stop the abuse failed, and players of the opposing team supported the taunts. When the match ended, Luiz left the pitch in tears.

The Serbian women's volleyball team struck a racist pose after beating Poland to secure Serbia's place in the 2018 FIVB Women's World Championship. In celebrating, the team posed and pulled the corners of their eyes to mock people of Asian descent, presumably in reference to the championships being held in Japan.

Houston Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel made the same racist gesture during the World Series. After hitting a home run off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish, Gurriel put his fingers to the sides of his face, lifted the corners of his eyes and mouthed the word "chinito," Spanish for "Chinese boy." Darvish, who was born in Japan, is of Japanese and Iranian descent. Gurriel is from Cuba.

Darvish handled the situation with grace, saying, "What he had done today isn't right, but I believe we should put our effort into learning rather than to accuse him. If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind. Since we are living in such a wonderful world, let's stay positive and move forward instead of focusing on anger. I'm counting on everyone's big love."

Incidents like this are especially harmful to our society because our children grow up idolizing and emulating these athletes, so to see them treat one another with such overt racism is disheartening. Hopefully they can follow the example of Darvish and not Gurriel.

Athlete activism will likely grow in 2018 and hopefully will help cut down on the rise in racist acts throughout sports. As we start the new year, it is my hope that leagues will create community forums in each franchise city with players, police, local officials, civil rights leaders and community leaders to openly discuss the issues to help us understand each other, face racism head on and achieve unity.

Blair Neelands contributed significantly to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual racial and gender report card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.