Originally posted as a Special to ESPN.com, February 26, 2009.

If you are a soccer fan, you know that Pele called Lilian Thuram one of the 125 greatest soccer players of all time. Thuram, who turned 37 this January, led the 1998 French team to the World Cup and appeared in 16 European championships, retiring in 2008 after a heart problem was discovered. He recently was selected as a member of the federal council of the French Football Federation.

He is a giant in the world’s most popular sport.

But that is not why I am writing about him. I’m writing about him because he has used his fame to campaign for civil rights in France and throughout Europe. He is speaking out as an almost solitary voice in European sports, as when Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell spoke out in the U.S. in the 1960s. Speaking out takes enormous courage.

I was in France for the first time in 1960 (I was 15 years old), and the American civil rights movement was heating up. At the time, many Frenchmen told me how bad race relations were in the United States, and that we should learn from the French.

Back then, hardly any people of color lived in France. The country was just emerging from the colonial era, and great numbers of people from its colonies were only beginning to move to France.

Nearly 50 years later, France has major racial problems. Paris experienced horribly violent riots in 2005. Thuram estimates that around 20 percent of the population today consists of Muslims (they come from north Africa and the Middle East) and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Thuram was born in Guadeloupe, a French territory in the Caribbean, in 1972. When he was 9 years old, his mother moved the family to a poor Paris suburb, where he confronted racism for the first time.

Thuram’s goal became to convince his new fellow countrymen that black people and Muslims could be French as well. The development of his soccer skills gave him a platform that other people of color in France did not have. But still, he has said that the only time he felt completely French was after he scored two goals in the match against Croatia that advanced France to the final of the 1998 World Cup.

Large numbers of immigrants in France live in project-like housing in the suburbs that ring the big cities. In France, people of color are called “immigrants” or “suburbanites.” The term “immigrant” refers to anyone whose family came to France from another country even if he has officially become a citizen.

Thuram’s commitment to civil rights in France was heightened after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. Tensions were high in France, as they were around the world. In what was supposed to be a peace match, France was to play its former colony, Algeria, on Oct. 6 that year in Paris. But young Algerian Muslim fans, frustrated by racism against immigrants, became rowdy during the playing of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. Some young fans stormed onto the field, and the players broke for the exits — all but Thuram, who grabbed and held one of the young people. He tried to tell him he was damaging the cause of people living in France’s suburbs.

The frustration of immigrant fans has not changed much. In 2008, the French national soccer team hosted Tunisia, and hundreds of fans again booed during the French national anthem.

France’s 1998 championship team was multicultural and included superstar Zinedine Zidane, raised in Marseille in France by his parents, who came from Algeria. Eight years later in another World Cup final, against Italy, Zidane had a famous confrontation with Marco Materazzi that ended with Zidane’s head-butt of Materazzi. Zidane claimed Materazzi called him “the son of a terrorist whore.” Materazzi later admitted he’d said, “I prefer the whore that is your sister.” Zidane was sent to the sideline with a red card, but it is widely believed he was provoked into action.

Another teammate was Christian Karembeu, who came from the French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. His relatives had been taken to Paris in 1931 as part of a “human zoo” in the Paris Colonial Exhibition, where they were depicted as cannibals. Karembeu angered many soccer fans because he refused to sing “La Marseillaise” at matches. However, many activists admired his actions.

It isn’t uncommon for European soccer fans to act with reckless racist abandon during games. Racist chants can be heard from the stands, and bananas sometimes are thrown on the field. (My friend, former New England Patriot defensive back Keith Lee, had bananas thrown at him on the field in the 1970s when he was a college quarterback at Colorado State.) Once, when Thuram publically criticized that behavior, some fans showed up at the next match in Parma, Italy, with a banner meant for Thuram that read, “Show us respect.”

Perhaps Thuram’s defining moment as a civil rights activist came during and after the 2005 riots in Paris. Nicolas Sarkozy, now the country’s president but then the minister of the interior, referred to the rioters as “scum.” Thuram responded publicly, pointing out that Sarkozy had never lived in a suburban ghetto.

And when National Front anti-immigrant leader Jean-Marie Le Pen complained that year about immigrants playing for France, Thuram said, “I’m not black. I’m French.”

A year later, Sarkozy had 80 immigrants removed from their residences because he said they were living there illegally. Thuram invited all 80 to be his guests at a soccer match between France and Italy.

It is ironic that Sarkozy, recognizing Thuram’s enormous influence, asked him to be his minister of diversity after he retired from soccer last year. Thuram politely refused so he could focus his efforts on his Lilian Thuram Foundation, which campaigns against racism.

I met him in November of last year when we both spoke at the Council of Europe, which was addressing racism in sport. Everything I had read and everyone I had spoken to before the trip prepared me to expect race relations in France to be about where they were in 1960 in the United States. But the situation was even worse. The French are in total denial. Thuram reinforced all of this in his remarks at the Council of Europe and in my private conversation with him. He asked whether he could visit me in Florida to see what we had been doing all these years to combat racism in sports and in society, seeking strategies to advance the anti-racist movement in France and Europe.

He arrived in Orlando on Feb. 9, and we had a whirlwind two days. Thuram came with Henriette Girard, the press attaché for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and Lionel Gauthier, who is in charge of the development of the Lilian Thuram Foundation.

We visited with Alex Martins and Linda Landman-Gonzalez, the chief operating officer and the vice president of community relations and government affairs, respectively, of the Orlando Magic. The Magic have one of the most extensive diversity management training programs on any professional team. They spent hours with Keith Lee, Robert Weathers and Jeff O’Brien, who head up the Teamwork Leadership Institute, the diversity management team at the University of Central Florida, doing the training for the Magic, NASCAR and more than 100 colleges and universities.

We met with Marcus Jadotte, who is in charge of diversity efforts at NASCAR, which is in the midst of doing diversity training for every NASCAR employee and official.

Finally, we went to Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., which canceled all classes on Feb. 11 to devote the day to diversity issues. Thuram spent hours with the students in the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program at Central Florida, a program of which I am the chair. He was amazed at the extent of what is done here during Black History Month to celebrate and reflect on the contributions to the world by African-Americans. He kept talking about BHM everywhere we went.

Thuram shared his philosophy with the students.

“The problem will not disappear unless we go into the classroom and get children to look at history and see where prejudices come from,” he told them. “Children are not born racist; they become racist, acquiring the prejudices of others. We must educate them.”

Thuram told us he is pushing FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, for stronger sanctions in the sport when overt acts of discrimination occur.

“The Croatian [Football Federation] had to pay only 15,000 pounds [about $21,400] for the monkey chants of their supporters in Zagreb,” he said. “This sends a bad message to both blacks and whites.

“If there is a young black person in the stadium or at home watching on TV, he will feel small if he hears the monkey chants. If the fine is insignificant, the black fan may have a sense of being a victim and may become racist towards white people. Some white people in the stadium get the message that it is not serious. The authorities have to make an example of those guilty of racism and punish them hard. Taking points away would show the authorities were serious.”

In addition to his own foundation, Thuram supports the campaigns of other groups such as the Council of Europe Campaign, “Speak out against discrimination”; and the British campaign, “Kick it Out.” In November in Strasbourg, I met with people from about 15 countries who are doing anti-racist work in their respective regions. All their campaigns were relatively new, reflecting the historical denial of racism in European. For them, Thuram is their Muhammad Ali, 40 years later.

Now, back in Paris, Thuram and his foundation are working to create a Minority History Month modeled after America’s Black History Month. He told me, “We have so much to learn from America. We are so far behind you. I dream of the day there will be a French Barack Obama. I will continue to work to tackle racism, and football can help. Football has a capacity to touch so many people.”

About the Author: 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 13 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.