Black football players: victims or or protagonists?

Est. read time: 9 min
"Chelsea vs Manchester City : 2" by Crystian Cruz (Flickr - CC BY-ND 2.0)

“Chelsea vs Manchester City : 2” by Crystian Cruz (Flickr – CC BY-ND 2.0)

What is it about football as a sport that makes it so difficult for those who control and regulate it to even conceive that black players could exercise their right to self-organisation and self-defence against the racism they suffer?

It will soon be 20 years since Herman Ouseley kick started the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign.  Yet, an unprecedented number of racist incidents involving players, a referee and fans during 2012 have led Lord Ouseley to threaten to resign as Chair of Kick It Out (which Kick Racism… became in 1997).

In a speech in London last week, he lamented the fact that English football has become complacent about race. He is quoted as saying: “I believe there has been a collective failure on the part of people running the game” (Mihir Bose, Evening Standard, 11 December 2012).

Since 2001, Kick It Out (KIO) as a campaigning anti-discrimination organization has held a week of action annually.

This year, in the wake of the Suarez, Terry and Evra incidents, no less than 32 players in the Premier League refused to wear KIO T-shirts during the week of action (18 – 29 October 2012) in protest at the failure of football’s managers and regulators, the Football Association, the Premier League and the Professional Footballers’ Association to take a more robust stance on racist conduct by players and clubs.

While the protest of those players received wide publicity, however, KIO is really the fall guy in all this.

Although it receives most of its funding from the FA, PFA and the Premier League, it is not a substitute for their regulatory functions, much as they like to behave as if it is.  KIO is a campaigning organization and has no powers vested in it as do those bodies.  The T-shirt protest is in effect a way of players saying to the FA and the rest of them that they can no longer use KIO as a figleaf to cover their own failings while sporting their anti-racist credentials.

The noise around the T-shirt protest led some players, Nathan Blake, former Wales striker and Christopher Samba, formerly of Blackburn Rovers among them, to call for a black players’ union.

This is not a call that football regulators and managers, nor clubs as employers welcome.  Yet, I suspect it is one that would find favour with many more black players but for the constraints placed upon them by those who control them.  In this respect, football remains decidedly backward and it is a backwardness that is likely to guarantee a perpetuation of racism in football for yet more decades since the founding of Kick Racism Out of Football in 1993.

Players owe allegiance to their Clubs as their employers.  Clubs in turn have various constraints placed upon them by the FA and the PFA.  Employees are entitled to the protection of their employers and the latter are required by law to provide a safe working environment for and to discharge a duty of care to their staff.  Staff in turn are required to abide by their employer’s code of conduct and that code often extends to how they conduct themselves outside their place of work.

In most other areas of employment, abuse of staff by other employees or by service users or customers would trigger firm action by the employer.  Many employers publish their ‘zero tolerance’ policy, including their intention to prosecute offenders in order to protect their staff and ensure a working environment free from verbal or physical abuse.

For decades, black players in grass roots and professional football have been denied such protection, even after the 1988 Crime and Disorder Act introduced racially aggravated offences and those fell into the category of hate crime.

In other areas of employment, especially where direct services are being rendered to the public, where employer organizations have been found to be institutionally racist, with black employees and service users experiencing personal and cultural manifestations of racism, the latter have fought for and won the right to organize independently to safeguard their rights, provide support for one another, create a climate in which each of them has the confidence to complain rather than suffer in silence and, above all, to hold their employers to account.

The list of such organizations gets longer and longer and includes: black members’ networks in trade unions, including the TUC itself; the national black crown prosecutors’ association; the national black police association; the national black probation officers’ association; the society of black lawyers; the black solicitors network…., the list goes on.

So, what is wrong with football?

Why is there such a reluctance among black players, coaches and referees to organize independently in their own defence and hold those who control football to account so that they could be treated with the respect to which they are entitled and could ensure that when the millions of black people in the UK and across the world watch football, they do not have to suffer the racism and indignity that white folk indulge in at will?

The reason is that those who control football and use KIO as their shield against accusations of institutional racism remain hell-bent on denying black players the right to self-organize.

Black players in the professional game operate within a culture of intimidation, bullying and at the very least the threat of victimization.  Club managers, agents, coaches and the FA/PFA actively discourage any moves towards black self-organization and leave players in no doubt, even without direct threats, that it is dangerous for them to ally themselves with any moves to establish a black footballers’ association.  Players who do not wish to find themselves on the transfer list and in constant bother with their clubs and fellow players soon learn that it is more than their career is worth to show militancy and take on the combined might of football corporations.

The sad fact remains, however, that mostly all of those in the corporate boardrooms of football are white and many would wish that this ‘irritant’ called ‘race’ would simply go away, or that more black players would just grin and bear it because racist abuse is so prevalent in society.  So, in the same way that the bar has been lowered when it comes to swearing any and everywhere, regardless of the age of those listening, there appears to be a view that there should be a similar tolerance of racist language and foul-mouthed racist abuse.

Imagine this scenario, though.

A white fan is the ring leader of a group abusing black players constantly throughout the first half of a match, both those on the pitch and those warming up as substitutes.  In the second half, a group of stewards and other fans decide to grab him, carry him onto the pitch and strip him naked, to the accompanying jeers of the crowd.  Worse still, he is sporting a beer gut of some girth that serves as an umbrella for a somewhat indecipherable knob that might otherwise be called a penis.

Were this to happen, I have no doubt that in an instant that same man would be appealing to the police to prosecute his captors not only for causing his most indecent exposure but for violating his human rights and subjecting him to inhumane and degrading treatment.

Unlikely scenario, I know, and one that is likely to cause a public order fiasco in any event.  But some such treatment is needed, even just once, to bring home to those who cannot see what all the fuss is about that it is no less humiliating and degrading to be subjected to racist abuse and incessant low level racial harassment.  It is no less psychologically challenging to run onto a pitch each time not knowing what to expect from those who insist on white superiority and the validation that whiteness gives them within the culture of racism in this society.

"John Terry" by Julian Mason (Flickr - BY 2.0)

“John Terry” by Julian Mason (Flickr – BY 2.0)

In the John Terry incident, there were many including football managers who jumped to Terry’s defence, arguing spuriously that Terry used racist language but ‘he is not a racist’.  The question is who the hell cares?If a woman driver cuts me up and nearly knocks me off my bicycle and I call her a ‘f…ing bitch and a whore’, I don’t expect her to launch an investigation as to whether I was just having a bad day as distinct from being intrinsically sexist and misogynistic.The danger in all this is that football could well become the one area where in the full public gaze racist conduct and the use of racist language becomes commonplace and as such unremarkable, except for those at the receiving end of it all, including black punters, old and young, who feel equally intimidated by that conduct, especially from fans.

That is why black players must collectively resist the bullying and intimidation, focus on the rights generations before them fought to win, safeguard and extend and join together to insist on playing in an environment where respect and dignity is guaranteed to them by the controllers and regulators of football.

The demography of Britain is such that Premium League clubs in the future cannot but sign up a growing number of home grown African and Asian players.  If in the next 20 years those players are still faced with what the current crop of black players are being made to endure, they would surely be forgiven for asking what those who were playing in that turbulent year, 20 years after Kick Racism Out of Football was founded actually did in response to the racism they faced.

The KIO T-shirt protest would surely appear in hindsight to have been not only a small and episodic gesture, but one with the wrong target and with a logic that the black players of the day failed to follow through. In this as in so many other struggles against injustice and barbarism, we are guided by the famous words of Franz Fanon:

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it”.

This applies to the current body of black players, inheritors of past advances gained by those who went before them, as it does to the rest of us in the struggle for racial equality and social justice.

Picture: “Chelsea vs Manchester City : 2” by Crystian Cruz (Flickr – CC BY-ND 2.0)

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