Without prejudice?

Positive action is required to back up anti-racism initiatives

If it is possible to gauge the extent of a problem by the number of organisations that exist to counter it, then racial prejudice is still a pressing issue in British football. Scarcely a week goes by without news of an anti-racism 
initiative somewhere. There are regular conferences on the subject, annual action weeks, supportive visits to schools by famous players, T-shirts, stickers, newsletters and banners unveiled at grounds. Every season spectators are evicted for racist abuse and barred for life by their clubs. Although, as most people who go to games on a regular basis will be aware, some stewards and police forces are more diligent than others in rooting out abusers.

In recent years, the Football Association has made several complaints about the racial abuse of black England players in away games, the latest being in a Euro 2012 qualifier in Bulgaria in September. Meanwhile, reports of black players in the Russian league having bananas thrown at them are greeted with incredulity in the British press. Such episodes tend to be viewed as a by-product of societies that are less “advanced” than multicultural, modern Britain.

A few years ago, Spain hosted one of the regular international conferences on racism in football. In his closing remarks the Spanish federation president, Ángel María Villar, effectively undermined the event by saying that insults exchanged between players on the pitch should remain private. Villar’s comments were widely ridiculed here but you do wonder if some of our football administrators might identify with what he said.

Over the last month, there have been two incidents of alleged racism during Premier League matches. Firstly, Patrice Evra claimed that Luis Suárez abused him during Manchester 
United’s match at Anfield on October 15. Suárez’s denials were swiftly backed by Kenny Dalglish, while Alex Ferguson has offered equally emphatic support to Evra. A week later, John Terry was accused of racially insulting Anton Ferdinand during QPR v Chelsea. Unlike Evra, Ferdinand didn’t comment on the incident directly after the game, but QPR later made a formal complaint. At the time of writing both cases are under investigation, at what seems to be an infinitely slow pace.

By way of background, the press canvassed the views of several black footballers of the 1980s and 90s. Several said they had experience of being racially abused on the pitch by opponents, but that they were expected to shrug it off as just another form of verbal intimidation. Stan Collymore claimed that he took one case to the players’ union, the PFA, at which point the other player’s lawyer threatened to sue for defamation. Ingrained attitudes have occasionally surfaced in what might seem to be unlikely places. When he was a manager, Ron Atkinson helped to develop the careers of several black players. But he lost his job as a summariser for ITV seven years ago after making 
racist comments that were inadvertently broadcast. A supposedly contrite Atkinson subsequently made a TV documentary about race prejudice but did not seem to have grasped fully the offence he had caused.

Terry and Ferdinand may both be aiming to follow Atkinson’s career path into management. The evidence would suggest that Terry will find progress a lot easier than Ferdinand. Around a quarter of professional footballers in England are black, but there are currently only two black managers among the 92 League clubs, Chris Powell at Charlton and Birmingham’s Chris Hughton. They have had only a handful of predecessors over the past decade. Several black ex-players with the requisite coaching qualifications say they have given up applying for jobs after multiple rejections.

This is a glaring anomaly that needs to be addressed by positive action. The US provides an example for the football authorities to work from with the so-called “Rooney rule”, named after its instigator, Dan Rooney. Since 2003, owners of American football teams in the NFL – where the majority of the players are black – have been required to interview at least one black candidate whenever a coaching job becomes available. Roughly 25 per cent of NFL coaches are now black, up from six per cent when the rule was introduced. The PFA’s chief executive, Gordon Taylor, recently called for the Rooney rule to be brought in here and has received backing from the League Managers Association. If the football authorities don’t agree, they should be asked to explain why at the launch of every new Kick It Out campaign.

From WSC 298 December 2011