Racism: on the pitch but off the agenda

Racism: on the pitch but off the agenda


Written by: Jon Burnett

What should we make of recent allegations of racism in football?

Until recently, the narrative on racism in English football resembled something of a self-congratulatory redemption story. The forms of racist abuse that were explicit in the 1980s – fans throwing bananas at black players, spitting at them when they took a throw-in, making monkey-noises when they received the ball, not ‘counting’ the goals they scored for the national team – were all seen, by and large, as things of the past. Similarly, the racial abuse that footballers had to endure by opposing players (and in some cases team-mates) was generally explained away as a regrettable reminder of a bygone era. ‘Moved on’ was the general perception: football, aside from the odd remark from the odd bad apple, had ‘moved on’.

The question as to exactly how far the game has moved on has been thrown open with the allegations that England captain John Terry racially abused Anton Ferdinand in October and, in November, with the Football Association (FA) charging Liverpool striker Luis Suarez with racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. These may be especially high-profile incidents, yet they show a reality in football in which racism is very much a factor in the present.

In the last two months alone five high-profile footballers, Sammy Ameobi, Jay Bothroyd, Frazier Campbell, Anton Ferdinand and James Vaughan, have had racist comments sent to them through twitter; and the former footballer and now ‘Talksport’ pundit Stan Collymore was threatened with violence through the same format for speaking out against racism. On the pitch, Chelsea fans allegedly sang racist chants to Daniel Sturridge, a striker playing for their club, recently. Arsenal supporters chanted ‘it should have been you’ to Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor, referring to an incident last year when he was on a bus with team-mates from Togo and gunmen shot and killed the driver, the media officer and the team’s assistant coach. (Tottenham fans, incidentally, also racially abused him when he was playing for Real Madrid against them earlier this year.) The Blyth Spartans player, Richard Offiong, claimed that another footballer said to him ‘where are your bananas? Show me your passport’ a few weeks ago.[1] And, returning to social media, Worcester City footballer Lee Smith tweeted on Armistice Day that ‘Illegal immigrants’ should f**k off out of are (sic) country … kill um’, before initially defending his comments and saying he was not really serious about inciting murder.[2]

Outrage at Sepp Blatter

Such incidents in football are by no means unusual. Yet the perception of a ‘post-racist’ sport remains. When Sepp Blatter – the head of world football’s governing body the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) – recently claimed that ‘there is no racism’ in football, just words or gestures which are not ‘correct’, there was outrage. Players and managers openly erupted; as did the tabloid press. From the Sun to the Prime Minister came calls for Blatter to resign. But in large part this collective anger has been taken as a measure of British football’s journey from a game where racism was rampant, to a game where it has been pushed to the margins. According to Patrick Collins of the Daily Mail, for example: ‘The days when our football offered a stage to crude, unthinking, racist attitudes are now a part of our dark and distant past. We have moved on, to the point where we can wade into the most powerful man in the wide world of football, secure in the knowledge that our own domestic attitudes are almost beyond reproach.'[3]

Part of this view comes from having one eye on Europe. There is no doubt that racism in football is explicit and endemic in many European countries with players facing routine, vicious abuse which is frequently either ignored by the sport’s governing bodies or, at best, met with sanctions that are derisory. And the tabloids are always quick to condemn this – especially when it involves black footballers playing for England or for English teams. As such, there is a perception that because racism is often more explicit in other countries, this can be taken as evidence of English football’s superiority. Witness the Sun, for example, rounding on ‘Europe’s cowardly soccer chiefs’ for not having ‘stuck the boot’ into Blatter in the same way as ‘England’s brave football bosses’.[4]

Institutional exclusion

Curiously though, those who rightly highlight the endemic racism in European football are much quieter when it comes to racism closer to home. The fact is that within England there exists a stark, persistent form of discrimination which, whilst now encouraging black people as players, almost systematically debars them from entering the upper echelons of the game. In their book, Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski describe the increase in black players in English football over the last few decades. Put simply, clubs want success; so it is counter-productive not to employ them. ‘[B]y the beginning of the 1980s, so many teams were hiring talented [black players] that the cost of discriminating had become quite high’, they explain. ‘Teams that refused to field black players were over-paying for white players and losing more matches as a consequence’.[5] This does not mean that racism against these same players disappeared; just that racism no longer acts in the same way as a barrier to recruitment.

In management, however, this barrier very much remains. Only two managers of England’s ninety-two football clubs are black: a statistical under-representation which stands in stark contrast to the statistical over-representation of black players. According to the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, this is evidence of a racial ‘ceiling’. Discrimination, in senior positions, is laid bare. And, as Herman Ouseley, Chair of Kick it Out, football’s equality and inclusion campaign explains, the unique way football clubs are run enables this same discrimination to continue unchallenged. ‘There is a problem of institutional racism; and this is a problem of institutional exclusion. Managers can be employed on a whim. Owners can do what they like. It is their club and they can employ a manager simply on the basis that he is the man they want. This filters down into administration. We are trying to introduce processes which make clubs look at everyone and employ people on the basis of talent.’

When he spoke to IRR News this week, he went on to argue that ensuring greater equity in senior positions is only one aspect of combating racism in football. ‘A lot of [Kick it Out’s] work is getting clubs to look at their fan-base. For many clubs, their fan-base is eroding. Clubs need to develop their grass-roots work more, actively working with communities on a routine basis rather than a few times a week. Some clubs have begun to do this already and others need to follow.’ Ultimately, this involves confronting the perception that racism, in football, has been banished to the past. But at the same time, it involves recognising that racism in football cannot be seen as an isolate. ‘The reality of racism in sport is the reality of racism in society’, Ouseley explains. ‘Football reflects what is going on in society and it has to challenge racism in institutional terms. The more that the social conditions for racism are created, the more there will be racism in football. And in society, the unfortunate truth is that racism is off the agenda.’

Related links

Kick it Out

References: [1] Lucy Roue, 'Blyth Spartans' Richard Offiong complains of racist jibes', North East Evening Chronicle (8 November 2011). [2] Richard Vernalls, '"Racist" footballer's twitter rant', Worcester News (15 November 2011). [3] Patrick Collins, 'Blatter is not the only dinosaur football needs to slap down', Daily Mail (19 November 2011). [4] Dan King, 'Sepp Blatter race row: Euro FA cowards refuse to slam FIFA chief - but our brave bosses do', Sun ( 18 November 2011). [5] Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, Soccernomics (New York, Nation Books, 2009), p. 107.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

5 thoughts on “Racism: on the pitch but off the agenda

  1. While absolutely deplorable in nearly every other sense imaginable, I fail to understand how a chant of ‘it should have been you’ would be deemed racist.. Otherwise a well-written piece on a problem that certainly needs the attention.

  2. While absolutely deplorable in nearly every other sense imaginable, I fail to understand how a chant of ‘it should have been you’ would be deemed racist.. Otherwise a well-written piece on a problem that certainly needs the attention.

  3. Any update on the El Hadji Dioufe racist abuse incident involving a white ball boy in 2009? Has he been charged in the same fashion as Terry? No? Sorry, is that a no? Any idea why not?

  4. Any update on the El Hadji Dioufe racist abuse incident involving a white ball boy in 2009? Has he been charged in the same fashion as Terry? No? Sorry, is that a no? Any idea why not?

  5. My son is a ballboy at BWFC and we are now pressing for an investigation into a Birmingham City player using vile Racist Abuse to my son , I need advise on this please , my boy is 14 and it may only be words but he is upset,angry and now withradwn about the whole event

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