It’s ok to be different

Jason Sherlock talks about how racism has affected his life

Jason Sherlock first came under the spotlight in Ireland when he formed part of the 1995 team that helped Dublin win their first All-Ireland Gaelic Football title in 12 years, when he himself was just 19 years old. It was an incredible debut year for the young star, but the attention he received was not always welcome, particularly when Dublin’s form began to waver.

Now retired at the age of 37, Jason has become an advocate for young mental health in Ireland and after years of experiencing racial abuse, he has begun to open up about how this affected his life.

“I came from Finglas. I had a mother and I had no father in the household. My father was from Hong Kong, so I looked different and Dublin or Ireland were in a place where we didn’t understand other cultures in society,” he says.


“Growing up had it’s challenges. I would have felt sport was a great outlet, because I was invisible. If you were good at sport, people didn’t really care what size or shape you were.

“I grew up wanting to be accepted and winning an All Ireland at that stage probably was the start of being accepted, and when that happened my focus in what I wanted to achieve probably wavered. But as things changed in the Dublin context and we started to lose games, I was singled out and things went back to the old days.”

Jason says it took a couple of years for him to come to terms with the situation he was in at the time. “Looking back now, I was never the biggest, I was never the strongest, but I like to think I had an aptitude and I wanted to commit. After two years I did commit everything I had to play for Dublin and I was lucky enough to play for 15 years. I probably didn’t get the trophies I wanted but in saying that I gave everything to be the best footballer I could be and also to try and encourage and bring my teammates on as well.”

Since his retirement Jason first became involved in the area of mental health through Cycle Against Suicide, a charity event where people cycle around the country stopping at schools to talk to transition years.

“I stood up with a microphone in front of 400 transition year girls out in Bray who wouldn’t have a clue who I am, and just talked about growing up and how hard it was to feel accepted and how it made me feel. I talked about how I dealt with it or didn’t deal with it, because it is important to share and ask for help,” he says.

“I wasn’t sure how it would be received but afterwards a 14-year-old girl came up to me in tears and said ‘I know exactly what you mean, and you have really made me feel better’, and she gave me a hug. That was very powerful for me, because I’m sure for any sportsperson at the end of their career, it is hard to comprehend what value you have outside the sport, and that was something I had to come to terms with. To get a message like that back was a very powerful thing and I was delighted. From there I moved into talking about racism and what I have encountered.”

When Jason first began speaking out about racism he talked to his family about what it was like for them when he was growing up. “My uncle said we didn’t see you as different, we saw you as a Dub. That’s the way we treated you and that’s the way we wanted you to see yourself,” he says.

“Now that was noble and what they thought was right, but what it did was force me into a situation where I couldn’t understand why people saw me as different, because I just see myself as a Dub. If I had it around again, I would have liked [my family] to say, ‘yeah you are different, and it’s ok to be different, and we celebrate that’. Then I might have been able to rationalise the negativity and abuse that I got a bit better.”


Over the years Jason experienced racism on a verbal and physical level and did not know how to deal with it, so it often ended in fights. He says this affected his self-esteem and made him paranoid. Just this year he was the victim of racial abuse online on the eve of the All-Ireland final between Dublin and Mayo, after his appearance on RTÉ’s Up for the Match preview programme. A message from a Twitter user said: “Sherlock you Na Fianna reject…Back to Asia with you, you don’t belong here”.

“There was a time when I would have been a victim of that, but I retweeted it because I don’t want to be a victim anymore,” Jason says. “It was great to get the support that I got. The club he played for contacted me and he was suspended. Him and his parents wanted to apologise, which was noble of him. So I met him and one thing I said was when he woke up on Sunday morning and saw the abuse he was getting, I asked how did you feel, and he said he felt pretty bad. I said you did something to warrant that. Imagine you didn’t do anything and you woke up to that every day, and you felt like that but times that by years, can you imagine what effect that has on you as a person?”

Jason says the solution to racism is education. “As a society we are changing. I always feel now when you look at a local GAA club and see one child who looks different, it’s not just about how he is treated but also his parents – how they are received or welcomed.

“Every member of society, not only in sport, has a responsibility or a part to play in that.”

Jason Sherlock was speaking at the ‘Ethics and Sport’ conference hosted by the Department of Religions and Theology in Trinity College Dublin.