Football's racial debate

FLASHPOINT: Danny Rose, the England and Sunderland defender, reacts to racist abuse in Serbia

FLASHPOINT: Danny Rose, the England and Sunderland defender, reacts to racist abuse in Serbia

First published in Scott Wilson The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

THE problem with the recent debate about racism in football is that a number of distinctly different issues have been lumped under the same umbrella. Ultimately, that is to the benefit of no one.

Serbian extremists lead the abuse of England's black players. That's racism in football. John Terry abuses Anton Ferdinand and refers to the colour of his skin. That's racism in football. The English game has far too few black coaches and managers. Again, that's racism in football.

Or is it? Were the dreadful scenes in Krusevac simply evidence of the racism that is endemic within Serbian society, with football merely the vehicle that was available to express it? Is the John Terry case simply the result of an individual who, for whatever reason, felt it was acceptable to express racist views on a football field?

By adopting such a broad-brush approach to the issue of race, there is a risk of creating the impression that a measure, or a series of measures, are sufficient to solve each and every problem which has reared its head in recent weeks.

That is not the case, but it perhaps explains why this week's proposals to create a black players' union have been met with such hostility and suspicion. 'It won't work', we are told. Clearly, though, that depends on what it is aiming to do.

At this point, it is perhaps useful to make a clear distinction between issues of racism which affect football, but which are not restricted to the sport, and areas which are the sole responsibility of the game.

Distasteful crowd chanting, for all that it can be policed and controlled by football's governing bodies to a degree, cannot be eradicated by those involved in the sport alone.

Direct racism is far less prevalent within English football grounds than it used to be, and bodies such as Kick It Out deserve praise for the campaigning work that has clearly made a difference over the last two decades.

But direct racism is far less prevalent within English society as a whole than it used to be, and changing social norms have clearly influenced standards of behaviour in the stands.

Racist behaviour still occurs in this country – only this weekend, The Northern Echo was reporting that lit fireworks had been thrown through the door of a mosque in Darlington – and as long as there is a fringe of society willing to indulge in racist acts, there will also be a minority of football fans willing to attach their abhorrent outlook to the sport.

Clearly, a black players' union will not change that, just as it will not temper racist sentiments in countries such as Serbia, even if it instructs its members to leave the field at the first sign of abuse. Sadly, you don't repair deep-rooted social divisions by walking off a football pitch.

But the kind of direct racism involved in an isolated idiot hurling abuse at a black player is markedly different to the kind of indirect, institutional racism that is arguably more damaging to football in this country.

By indirect, I mean the underlying, often unseen racism that results in individuals and institutions discriminating against players from ethnic minorities, often without even realising they are doing it.

It helps explain why there are so few black managers in this country, why the upper echelons of bodies such as the Football Association are almost exclusively white and why a club like Chelsea feel able to justify their decision to retain Terry as their captain.

It speaks of an instinctive reluctance to embrace change, a tacit acknowledgement that this is the way things have always been, and therefore this is the way they should remain.

It was the kind of mindset that was prevalent in the Metropolitan Police at the time of Stephen Lawrence's death in 1993 and which resulted in chronic deficiencies in the force's handling of the case.

Those deficiencies led to the creation of the Metropolitan Black Police Association in September 1994 and the National Black Police Association a few months later. Both bodies have been credited with helping to transform the attitude and working practices of the police.

The Society of Black Lawyers has had the same impact within the legal profession, so there is no reason why a black players' association cannot help to enact change within football.

“Ah, but it will create a situation of 'them' and 'us',” some have said by way of counter-argument. To which the only response is, 'That situation already exists'.

A refusal to acknowledge the existence of a 'them' and 'us' is part of the problem, and by addressing the issue head on, the hope is that a black players' body will force intrinsically conservative bodies such as the Football Association, Premier League and Football League to address their failings head on.

The same is true of football clubs themselves, who can surely ill afford to alienate some of their most valuable and important employees.

This week's announcement, and the subsequent pledges of support from high-profile black players such as the Ferdinand brothers, feels like something of a line in the sand.

If it heralds a break with the past, that is a positive development. But no one should it expect it to solve all of society's ills, just as no one should expect it to solve the all-encompassing issue ill-advisedly termed 'racism in football'.


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