Tears begin to well up in Obby Khan's eyes, forcing him to pause for nearly 10 seconds before he could finish reading the sentence on the card.
"The hijab is not a preventative piece of cloth. It shouldn't affect an athlete's ability or right to partake in sport," it read.
Reading that card was a part of Khan's duties Wednesday morning as the emcee of Winnipeg’s Anti-Racism in Sport Campaign launch from the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. The virtual event featured more than a dozen speakers, including Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, provincial Sport, Culture and Heritage Minister Cathy Cox, and Parliamentary Secretary for Sport Adam van Koeverden.
"I've experienced it, I've seen it, and my heart goes out to those kids. It's tough. Racism in sport is a real thing and it needs to stop," said Khan, a Muslim of Pakistani descent who was born in Ottawa, when asked what was going through his mind at that moment.
"I was blessed that people saw me as Obby Khan the football player, Obby Khan the Blue Bomber, Obby Khan the big presence. But kids don't have that opportunity. Kids see it, they feel it, they internalize it. We need to change that. I've seen it firsthand myself playing high school and university football being called racial slurs. It's good I was bigger, stronger and better than everyone else so I could defend myself, but for kids, they can't. It's really hard and it hits you in the heart. If it doesn't hit you in the heart, you need to ask yourself why it doesn't hit you in your heart. And it's not only Muslims wearing hijabs. It could be Indigenous, Metis, Inuit, Black, racialized religious minorities, everyone."
Funded by the federal department of Canadian Heritage, the anti-racism campaign is led by Immigration Partnership Winnipeg and will run from April 2021-March 2022. Through a research project, school presentations, training for sport stakeholders, a public awareness campaign, and an anti-racism in sport accord, the objective is to educate people and disrupt all levels of racism.
The research will be done at the University of Manitoba on the root causes of racism in sport and the school presentations will feature prominent professional sport figures who will point out the negative impacts of racism and discrimination in sport. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Winnipeg Goldeyes and Valour FC will be involved in the campaign.
Daria Jorquera Palmer, an accomplished fencer who has represented Canada at international events, is the campaign project manager. Jorquera Palmer is mixed race as her mother is German and her father hails from Chile. Jorquera Palmer said the first time she experienced racism was in gym class in middle school. Knowing what it feels like to feel discrimination in sport, Jorquera Palmer hopes this initiative can help prevent the next generation of athletes experience some of the things she went through.
"Since then, it's almost like you internalize it as a person and you wonder if you're always being judged on the colour of your skin and what you look like. As an athlete, I was very aware and very conscious that that was a possibility," Jorquera Palmer told the Free Press in a phone interview after the launch event.
"I always put pressure on myself to make sure that I was the best that I could be and that I was at the top of my field because I didn't want to give anybody a reason, or any excuse to not choose me to be on the team. I don't want other athletes to feel like that's why they have to be good at their sport or at the top. They should be at the top because that's their goal. They shouldn't worry about not being chosen or being treated differently based on the colour of their skin."
Khan, a local entrepreneur who played nine CFL seasons, including five with the Blue and Gold (2006-2011), dropped some alarming stats about race in sports during the event. Out of the 56 Canadian universities, only one has a non-white athletic director. Out of the country's largest national sports organizations — swimming, athletics, hockey, skating, basketball, volleyball and soccer — only seven out of 100 board of directors positions are held by people who identify as a part of a racialized community. Canada's Sports Hall of Fame has a total of 665 athletes inducted, but only 11 of them identify as Indigenous.
The problem is also prevalent in the pros, as Khan cited Major League Baseball where 41 per cent of players identify as a part of a racialized community, but only seven per cent have leadership positions. It's the same story in the National Football League, where 70 per cent of players are from a racialized community, yet there are only six working as head coaches, two general managers, and four CEOs.
Khan said race was a common topic when he played in the CFL. He hopes those types of conversations can expand outside the locker room and into the community.
"Some of my greatest memories are sitting around the locker room after practice or a game and talking to Adarius Bowman, Fred Reid, even Charlie Roberts would join the conversation, Milt Stegall, Doug Brown, and we'd sit around and we'd talk about what it was like to be a minority, what it was like to be a Black player from the States playing in the CFL, what it was like to have a locker room. The family bond we had in the CFL was unlike anything I've ever experienced. Now that wasn't always the case. High school and university were a completely different picture and we need to stop that and we need to stop that now. It's a little bit too late, but it's better now than ever."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.