I don't know if this has always been the case, but recent decades have been case studies in empty gestures, throughout society. Every cause has a ribbon, every significant event (positive or negative) brings a ton of WHAT DO WE DO NOW or WOW THAT WAS AMAZING comments, or people start posting Facebook statuses or tweets to show "support" (" 'Like' this if you want everyone to be nice!"), but very, very few people actually DO anything in the wake of the significant event.
Think about it for a second. As admirable as "supporting the troops" is as a concept, and it is, how does spending $1.50 on a ribbon sticker for your car actually, you know, support the troops? It supports the ribbon industry, but that money doesn't go to the troops, and if you think a guy bunkered down in darkest Whereveristan thinks "wow it's so great that Joe Schmo in Ohio has a ribbon on his car!", you fundamentally misunderstand what the troops actually need.*
But that's enough of that - in the immortal words of Bill Cosby, I told you that story to tell you this one. The Italian league is on its winter break right now, and as Italian teams are wont to do, AC Milan arranged to play a friendly against Pro Patria, a fourth-division club located not far from Milan. These things are a really fun day out for the locals - they get to see their big-club heroes at a small ground, for a lower price than Serie A tickets usually cost, and it's just generally an exercise in feel-goodness all the way around.
Except the other day, that is. During the Pro Patria friendly, a small yet vocal section of the crowd thought it would be a good idea to welcome Milan's black players with their usual array of racist chants. So, in the 26th minute, Boateng booted the ball at the section giving out the abuse and walked off, all the way down the other end of the pitch. After a few steps, once they realized what was going on, his team all followed him; the referee and some Pro Patria players tried to convince him to stay, but he was having none of it.
Tellingly, the rest of the crowd applauded Boateng and Milan on the way out; Boateng made a point of clapping to the sections of the stadium that weren't acting like neanderthals, and they returned his affection. So it's not universal - as with most things, a small minority ruins a good thing for pretty much everyone. Milan has promised to return, but Thursday's game was abandoned after Milan refused to continue.
As horrified as I am that this happened in the first place - this is the 21st century, people! - I am equally impressed that Boateng decided to do something about it. There are a couple schools of thought regarding racist chanting; a player can simply do nothing, ignore it and play on like it isn't happening, or a player can do what Boateng did, and walk off in the middle of a game. I'm thrilled that Boateng chose the latter - I have always been of the school of thought that action trumps inaction, and while I totally get the "ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist" mindset, in my view that's the wrong way to go, because it will never force people to do anything differently.
I could write 25,000 words about the sociological construct that is the relationship between sports fan and team, but suffice it to say it's a powerful relationship - at its extremes, fans lose themselves in their teams and start to identify themselves as a part of the team. This brings with it a sense of entitlement - "it's my team, I spend time/money/my life following them, I can do/say whatever" - that can lead to behavior most people would find abhorrent.
From your garden-variety drunken fighting hooligan to your Italian Ultras groups who are very tightly (if not legally) woven into the fabric of their clubs, you have a segment of society who think that they are above the law (or at least above the rules of the club), and that they can do whatever they want. When this is combined with non-footballing sociopolitical views that are, to be charitable, retrograde, you get what happened at Pro Patria.
And so often, players faced with this sort of abuse - which has been on the rise again lately all over Europe, not just Italy - will just put their heads down and get back to work, hoping that denying the existence of these chants will deny them their power to hurt. But Boateng stood up, said I'M NOT HAVING THIS, and walked off, which took a lot of guts on his part. He realized that the only way to actually punish the people that were acting out was to deny them that which they were acting out against; had he stayed on the pitch and ignored them, he would have just given them validation that they could continue, and they would have continued unabated, ruining the day not just for the players but for the 98% of fans that were just there to see Milan play their local team.
I have long said that in sports, the only lens through which a team understands its relationship with its fans is money. You don't like what your team is up to? Don't spend money. Don't go. Don't support them financially in any way. Once seats empty, the team will listen, and similarly, once players say "I will not work in these conditions", maybe things will change. Even though Boateng's probably not going to become a vocal leader of a campaign or anything, his action said ENOUGH in a way that stadium bans, closed-door matches, and fines cannot, and I hope the next time a player, in any country, is the target of racist abuse by fans, he does the same thing. Walk away, take away what people want, and maybe FIFA (or national federations) will start fining clubs more for racist offenses than for wearing sponsored underpants, and maybe then things will start to change.
*By the way, if you actually want to do something for the troops, go here.