“The day when White players understand that they are a part of the solution and they know they cannot be neutral, things will advance,” the French football legend, who played for the likes of Monaco, Juventus and Barcelona during a glittering career, told CNN Sport’s Darren Lewis.
“We need to invite the players to read into the subject of racism so that they can understand that they can change things.
“When they know that and subsequently decide to walk off the pitch, you will see that the institutions will find solutions to the problem of racism.
“If you stop the matches, you stop the business — and football is, above all, a business.
“As a result, if we stop the matches, the footballing institutions will be forced to find a solution.”
From Guadeloupe to France
Thuram, 49, was born in Guadeloupe but moved to France when he was nine years old before going on to represent the French national team on 142 occasions, winning the World Cup in 1998.
He says moving to France and being racially abused by children at school was the first time he became conscious that he was seen as a Black person in society.
Thuram says he was subject to racist abuse, such as monkey chants, throughout his playing career, notably after signing for Italian club Parma in 1996.
He recently wrote a book entitled White Thinking: Behind the Mask of Racial Identity which addresses how societal norms still work to divide people and fuel systemic racism.
He says education is the key to tackling the issue in a more meaningful way, both in football and in wider society.
Recently, Germany’s Olympic football team walked off the pitch during a friendly match against Honduras after one of the German players was racially abused, according to the German Football Association (DFB).
Thuram urged athletes to not be complicit and to continue using their platforms to be activists for social causes.
“You have to know that the authorities are going to be able to promote more equality in society because we’re going to oblige them to do so,” he said.
“That’s why you need to educate each and every one to understand that we have a role to play, and we have to have the courage to denounce injustices.
“It’s the number of people demanding change that will force the institutions to change.”
Following a number of high-profile incidents in 2019, European football’s governing body UEFA introduced a three-step protocol for referees when combating racism in the stadium.
It gave officials the option to abandon the game “as a final resort” if racism continued after restarting the match for a second time.
Meanwhile, world football’s governing body FIFA says it is continuously working with the EU Commission to eradicate discrimination from the game.
“There is no place for racial discrimination in football or in society,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said earlier this year.
“As the governing body of football worldwide, FIFA recognizes and embraces its responsibility to lead the fight against discrimination.”
Since retiring from professional football in 2008, Thuram has watched his son, Marcus, follow his footsteps into the pro game.
Now playing in Germany for Borussia Monchengladbach, Marcus was one of the many players to take a knee during a game following the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Other players used their social media platforms to share messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and English Premier League clubs still take a knee before every match in order to raise awareness of discrimination.
“What was extremely interesting after the death of George Floyd was that many of the players who took the knee were young players,” Thuram said.
“That’s something very important and it shows why we have to educate the youngest people in society because, as a general rule, it is them who enact the change.”
Pushing for a better future
Thuram has praised White players such as Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson for addressing the subject of racial injustice but is aware that athletes, particularly Black athletes, could face criticism for speaking out.
Colin Kaepernick, for example, became a lightning rod in 2016 when the former NFL quarterback took a knee during the National Anthem, protesting racial injustice and what he said was ongoing police brutality in the US.
He drew fierce criticism from some for kneeling and has not been signed to a team ever since.
Thuram says he is not surprised that young Black people speaking out have prompted such a response but says history will be kind to those who do.
“Things haven’t changed,” he said. “You need to know that historically, the people who denounce the racism of a political system, of institutions, are usually always put on the sidelines.
“This could mean physically eliminated: there was a time [that] people were killed for denouncing racism.
“Nowadays, we present Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as great people. But you have to remember that, in their lifetimes, they were put in prison.
“They were also attacked for denouncing institutional racism, so the fact that Colin Kaepernick cannot find a team in fact follows logic.”
Thuram is aware that the issue of racism is prevalent in many other sports and says it’s important that sponsors and clubs don’t abandon those who speak out against it.
In terms of a long-term resolution to such issues, Thuram reiterates that education and understanding the history of racism is vital.
“We must talk with the players, educate the players so that they know they have real power over the decisions that institutions can take to combat racism,” he added.
“Because very often, regardless of their skin color, players do not understand the strategies that can be put in place to improve equality.”
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