Imagine you run a restaurant -- or, for that matter, work in a restaurant -- and a customer racially abuses a member of your staff.
What would you do?
Hold that thought.
On Sunday, Porto traveled to play Guimaraes in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, Portugal's top professional soccer division. During the game, a television reporter said monkey chants were being directed at Porto striker Moussa Marega throughout the game.
(In short: Fans of the home team were racially abusing a visiting player -- one who had played for that team a couple of years earlier.)
In the second half, Marega scored what turned out to be the winning goal and celebrated by pointing at his skin. Some in the crowd responded with monkey chants. Others threw seat cushions from the upper deck.
Marega was then given a yellow card by the referee, apparently for pointing at his skin and (gasp!) picking up a seat cushion thrown at him.
At some point, Marega decided enough was enough, walking off the field to be substituted.
Which turned out to be more difficult than you might think, since teammates tried to hold him back. Marega pushed some away. Pulled away from others. Ignored those who appeared to beg him to stay on the field.
Even his coaches try to restrain him, as do a few opposition players.
Watch. It's pretty bizarre.
Finally Marega leaves the field, a substitute takes the field, and the game continues.
Granted, there are two sides to this. Professional athletes grew up dealing with yelling, taunts, verbal harassment, etc. Go to any high school game and you'll see fans yell at kids. Somehow we think it's OK to treat athletes -- even child athletes -- differently than we would treat those same people in any other situation.
Somehow we think that everyday occurrence is somehow OK -- that a little verbal abuse comes with the territory.
The players learn to "rise above"; if they don't, they don't reach the professional ranks. (Sadly, one of the unspoken job requirements is "the ability to ignore abusive, insensitive, and asshole-y comments from hundreds of people while performing duties at an extraordinarily high level.")
Racial abuse is, of course, a different matter. Telling a player he sucks? Fine. If he starts to walk off a field because fans question his ability, teammates should try to stop him. That -- sadly -- comes with the territory.
But racially abusing him? Especially when the referee apparently doesn't do anything about the abuse but penalizes him when he responds in a non-profane way?
If he starts to walk off, teammates should walk with him. And so should his coaches. (Teammates were right to try to calm him down, since Marega admits he "can do something stupid when I'm upset," but still: Putting an arm around the shoulder of a player who feels "ashamed and humiliated" would surely be more calming; pulling him back implies he's wrong for feeling the way he does.)
If clubs don't protect players, if football associations (leagues) don't protect players, if the organizing body doesn't protect players, what recourse is left to that player?
Rising above, in a different way, by protecting himself.
And his teammates and coaches should support him.
Not try to hold him back.
Which takes us back to the restaurant.
The customer is always right, until he or she isn't.
Complaints about food or service or even ambience? Fine. They come with the territory. An employee should try to rise above. Co-workers, especially a manager or owner, should step in to deescalate conflict while -- and this is critical -- also showing support for their colleague.
Comments about race, religion, sexual orientation, and national origin should never come with the territory.
That's when you must step in: To deescalate, show support, and deal with the situation by taking over -- and asking the customer to leave.
Never assume pay or benefits or opportunities make employees feel respected and valued. Tangible rewards matter, but allow employees to be harassed, discriminated against, or abused and no tangible reward will ever overcome the damage to their feelings of self-worth.
Every employee wants to know you have their back: That when times get tough, you'll get tougher.
Because no job requirement, stated or unstated, should ever require the loss of self-respect.