Is the race issue in football becoming bigger than the game?

October 27, 2012 in Europe, Premier League

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My opinions on this issue have been to-ing and fro-ing this week. Last weekend, as part of the ‘Kick it Out’ campaign, all Premier League Footballers were expected to wear a Kick It Out training t-shirt before the games kicked off. A number of black players including the Ferdinand brothers and Reading’s Jason Roberts refused to wear it, as a form of protest that Kick It Out is not doing enough to tackle the escalating race issue currently in English football.

This latest row came only days after a brawl between players and fans broke out at England’s U-21 European Championship qualifier game against Serbia in Belgrade. The racism and monkey chants had been going on through the entire match but escalated when England’s Danny Rose scored a late winner and was subjected to abuse from Serbian fans and players, including having various missiles thrown at him. Subsequently, two Serbian players and coaches have been given a one-year international ban.

At the start of the week, I thought this boycott of the Kick it Out training t-shirt was wrong. I was of the opinion that, yes, Kick it Out is not doing enough, but surely something is always better than nothing in this situation?

But then my opinion began to change when I realised just how much publicity was generated from this issue. If everyone had reacted the same way as Sir Alex Ferguson by saying their players would be ‘dealt with’, well then, maybe the breakthroughs that have been discussed this week wouldn’t have happened.

On Tuesday, leading human rights barrister Peter Herbert announced that talks were at a preliminary stage for a Black Players’ Association that would be more radical and vigorous than any current race organisation such as Kick it Out or Show Racism the Red Card. While it is good to know that there are those willing to take more decisive and drastic action to combat the recent resurgence of racist activity, some have worried about the effects it could have on unity within the footballing community. David Bernstein, Chairman of the FA, has openly announced that he is worried this might cause an even bigger rift and an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude. While I can definitely empathise with his fears, I must concede that this latest suggestion is definitely a step in the right direction in beating the increased racism in football. I would like to see the FA playing a leading role in forming an association which gives a platform to black players and makes an example out of those few (players and fans) who think they can get away with racist comments and action.

Another breakthrough came on Friday, as Gordon Taylor of the PFA announced a six-point plan to tackle racism in football, which included such things as speeding up the process of dealing with reported racist abuse, with close monitoring of any incidents, consideration of stiffer penalties for racist abuse, and to include an equality awareness programme for culprits and clubs involved. As well as this racial abuse is to be considered gross misconduct in player and coach contracts (and therefore potentially a sackable offence), and emphasis to not to lose sight of other equality issues such as gender, sexual orientation, disability, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Asians in football.

While all of this strategy is a long time coming - in almost all other work environments these points are already implemented and enforced - there are two that I think once again could be encouraging division rather than unity. First of all, a suggestion of the ‘Rooney rule’, used in the American NFL to make sure that black coaches are on interview lists for job vacancies. My reason for disagreeing with this rule is because I don’t think race should be an issue when choosing the best man for the job. Coaches, managers, players should be chosen on merit not race, and I just wonder how far we’ll be taking it in the wrong direction if talented men start missing out on opportunities because potentially less talented counterparts are reaching the shortlist stage for the simple fact that they are black.  A comparison I can relate to is that of women in the work place. I am a feminist; I believe that yes, women should be given the same opportunities as men, the same pay etc, but I would never expect to be given a job over a man simply because I am a woman if he is more qualified to take on that role. I strongly think that this sort of attitude is encouraging discriminatory behaviour rather than dissuading it.

The second point I don’t agree with is a monitoring of a proportion of black coaches and managers, and any inequality or progress to be highlighted. Why? Because I can see this getting in the way of the game, and the way these managers and coaches are able to run their teams. Don’t get me wrong, there should be measures in place for these managers and coaches to report any racist behaviour they encounter, that can be dealt with accordingly. But do really we want these people to be coddled? This, I think, is another way in which we are likely to make the issue of racism bigger than the game and will result in football being overshadowed by discrimination.

As I said at the beginning, my opinions have been yo-yoing all week. One thing I do know for certain is that it’s time for us to really deal with racism in football, to all pull together and tackle it so it can be Saturday’s scores that dominate the headlines and not the behaviour during the game.