Time for a National Black Footballers Association

Est. read time: 16 min

High profile racist incidents during premium league games in recent times have led to more open public debate about racist abuse of black players by white players and fans.

Such sort of practice has been commonplace in professional football since pioneers such as Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Viv Anderson took to the pitch in the post-Second World War period. They had been famously preceded, of course, by Andrew Watson (1857-1902), the British Guiana born first black Association footballer who won caps three times at international level for Scotland, and Ghanaian Arthur Wharton (1865 – 1930), the first black player to play professional football in Britain.

The story of Andrew Watson’s success in the 1880s and of Wharton’s story, sensitively told by Phil Vasili in his book: The First Black Footballer, Arthur Wharton 1865–1930, with a Foreword by Irvine Welsh and an Introduction by Tony Whelan, should be compulsory reading for every white footballer and fan in Britain.

The growing number of black players in the professional game and the increasing frequency of racist conduct at football matches that took the form of verbal and physical abuse and harassment which was meant to hurt and humiliate black players led to the launch of the ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign in 1993.  The campaign was spearheaded by the Commission for Racial Equality under the visionary leadership of its Chairman, Herman Ouseley (now Lord Ouseley).

We should not forget that racial discrimination and racist incidents in football is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to the professional game and events in the Premier League.  Discrimination in football on account of gender and of race specifically is prevalent in a game in which there are some 7 million active players in England (including men and women as well as schoolchildren – all within the jurisdiction of the FA), whereas there are some 4,000 professional players of which around 30% are estimated to be black.

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

Last September, Chelsea captain John Terry was banned for four matches
and fined £220,000 for racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand.
Credits: “John Terry” by Julian Mason (Flickr – BY 2.0)

As many retired and current amateur players constantly remind us, shocking and unacceptable though they undoubtedly are, the few high profile cases each season involving racially aggravated conduct by players and fans in the professional football game, which becomes the subject of high profile media coverage, pales into insignificance when one takes into the reckoning the hundreds of incidents that occur week by week and weekend after weekend outside the professional ranks.

In my own experience as a former youth service manager, black teams in the Sunday League who play against mainly or all white teams, especially on the latter’s home turf, have been for over half a century the subject of racist abuse by players as well as supporters and have suffered from perverse decisions by referees on account of their racial origin.

There are only 4 black professional managers in the top fight among the 92 Clubs but there are many more, though still not enough, black coaches down the line, who are kept in number two positions, or operate within coaching teams below the radar and who are often ex-pros and do valuable work at grass roots level in communities, especially among young men who have little or no access to planned and supervised leisure activities.  Such coaches are in the real everyday struggle for survival.

Combined efforts to fight racism

Spurred on by the ‘Let’s Kick racism Out of Football’ campaign, Sheffield United launched ‘Football Unites Racism Divides’ (FURD) in 1995, a project to combat racism among its fans and run youth and educational programmes.

In 1997, the ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign morphed into ‘Kick It Out’, an organisation supported by the Professional Footballers Association, the Premier League and the Football Association.

In 1999, FURD and Kick It Out met with a number of other European anti-racist organisations to form the FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) Network.  FARE states that  the ‘network campaigns against all forms of discrimination in football: in the stadium, on the pitch, in the changing room, at the training ground, in the office and classroom; by fans, players, managers, coaches, administrators or educators’.

Show Racism the Red Card was founded in 1995 by the then Newcastle United goalkeeper Shaka Hislop and Ged Grebby, who was then an active member of Youth against Racism in Europe.  Show Racism the Red Card does important educational and campaigning work and has the support of an increasingly number of schools and youth groups in expanding that work.

Charlton Athletic Race Equality (CARE) partnership was formed by Greenwich Borough Council and Charlton Athletic Football Club in 1992.  While its initial focus was on combating racism and promoting race equality in football and in its local community, over the last 20 years it has done excellent work in Greenwich and South London by using sports and the arts to engage with communities in tackling racism, inequality and discrimination.

Recently, ‘Kick It Out’ has come in for a great deal of criticism, not least from black players themselves, as a result of the FA’s handling of a number of high profile cases in which black Premier League players have been racially abused by white players, resulting in no action at worst, or inappropriate and meaningless action at best, being taken against the perpetrators.

Consequently, there is active debate amongst black players as to how to hold the PFA, FA and Premier League to account for what is seen as weak responses and risible penalties that give a green light to other players and fans to indulge in racist abuse.  The refusal of a number of players to wear ‘Kick It Out’ t-shirts at Premier League matches in recent weeks is the latest active protest against the level of response of the football watchdogs.

So,  why a National Black Footballers Association (NBFA)?

A NBFA is urgently needed in order to fulfil the following aims:

  1. To be a self-financing, players-led organisation to represent and safeguard the interests of black players, professional and non-professional, nationally and across the game;
  2. To act with one voice in support of players, coaches and referees facing racial harassment, verbal and physical abuse, discrimination and injustice;
  3. To provide a forum where they could share experiences, receive guidance and support and make proposals that could benefit the game at all levels;
  4. To hold the FA and PFA to account for the way they deal with racist conduct on and off the field and as exhibited by fans;
  5. To draw attention to and challenge the culture of the Dressing Room and ensure that Clubs as employers, the League Managers Association, Managers and Head Coaches are held accountable for the insidious culture of prejudice and discrimination which remains unchallenged from one generation of footballers to the next;
  6. To give support to its members in maintaining the highest professional standards on and off the pitch, having regard to the esteem in which they are held by those who see them as role models in the sport and in the community;
  7. To provide guidance and mentoring for young players aspiring to become professional and join clubs, focusing equally on those who do not get chosen to join clubs;
  8. To ensure that black players joining clubs from ‘B’ teams or academies have access to educational opportunities leading to the highest possible qualifications and that their schooling and education is not hampered by them starting a career in football;
  9. To build and maintain a database of black players, coaches, referees, managers and administrators operating the game nationally, both at professional and non-professional levels;
  10. To campaign for the appointment of more black managers, coaches and referees;
  11. To promote other opportunities in football for black players in   football once their playing careers have ended, including for example: administration, physiotherapy, medical sports science, security, catering, hospitality, marketing and PR, ensuring that the PFA offer them opportunities to access the necessary early training in those disciplines before their careers come to an end, so that their prospects for future purposeful engagement in an area of their choice can be secured;
  12. To build a historical archive and museum of black people in football in Britain and the contribution of black players to the development and refinement of the sport and to combating racism in the sport, beginning with Watson and Wharton in the late 19th and early 20th century, as an education resource and as a means of connecting young aspiring players with the history of black people in football in Britain.

The experience of black footballers, particularly since black migration to Britain after the Second World War, mirrors the experience of black professionals in education, criminal justice, the legal profession, the police, the fire and rescue service, the civil service, the trade unions and elsewhere in British life.

That is an experience of representative bodies, trade unions and professional associations failing to understand how racism operates and is experienced by its victims, seeking to deny or minimise that experience, or seeing racist conduct as a lesser disciplinary issue than other forms of misconduct or outlawed behaviour.  Since the 1970s, therefore, we have seen the steady growth of black practitioner forums or members’ networks in the various public services and trade unions mentioned above.

The one thing all of these have in common is the fact that black professionals have both an individual and collective experience of personal and institutional manifestations of racism in their places of work, which reflect the daily experience of black people in the society.  They are therefore strengthened in the workplace and in their collective response to racism, both by their numbers and the power and influence that strength in numbers gives them, as well as by the knowledge that the wider black community outside the workplace supports them.

One classic example of that is the National Black Police Association and the way it was formed.  It is a good example precisely because of the historical relationship between the police and the black community in which the community experienced decades of oppressive policing from an institutionally racist service with more than its fair share of rednecks.  Once serving police officers began to feel the heat inside the organisation, they found the need to make common cause with the communities from which they themselves came and to see their treatment within the police service as being on the same spectrum as that which is dished out to the community on the streets, or in police vans and police stations.

The extract below from the Epilogue I wrote in the reprinted New Cross Massacre Story – interviews with John la Rose, New Beacon Books 2011, is instructive in that it analyses the growth of black professional associations such as the National Black Police Association:

“Following the Brixton uprisings in April 1981, the Scarman Inquiry recommended, among other things, that the police take steps to recruit more black officers.

John Lea, writing about ‘the Politics of Policing’ in 2007, stated:

In London almost 25 per cent of the population is of non-white ethnicity. When Lord Scarman reported on the Brixton riots in 1981 black officers constituted merely 0.5 percent of the Metropolitan Police.  He called for a substantial increase in the number of non-white officers. But progress has been slow.  By 2001 a little over 4 per cent of Metropolitan Police officers were from a minority ethnic background.  At the end the of the financial year 2003/4 it was 6.6 per cent.  The Home Office has set a target of 25.9 percent ethnic minority officers by 2009.  Many consider this unlikely to be achieved.

The Home Office target was in direct response to one of the findings of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (1999) into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, i.e., that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’, a finding which was prompted by the evidence  the Inquiry received from the Met’s Black Police Association which was formed in 1994.

The widespread criticism in black communities of the police investigation into the New Cross Fire and especially of their treatment of the young black party goers, the police conduct during the Black People’s Day of Action and the nature of the police operation that led to the Brixton uprising shone the spotlight on black officers in the Metropolitan Police. They began to associate much more directly their own experience of racism in the police service with the way the communities to which they belonged experienced policing in London and elsewhere.

Throughout the 1980s, black police officers became increasingly conscious that they were part of an arm of the State that was targeting black people disproportionately through ‘Stop and Search’, the Sus laws, and raids on places of entertainment and on residences, at a time when the economy was in decline and unemployment was affecting black youth more than any other section of the population.

For example, Superintendent Paul Wilson speaking at a conference on ‘rank and file participation in police reform’ in October 2006 about ‘the development and role of a Black Police Association’ noted that when Brixton erupted in 1981, whereas unemployment in Brixton stood at 13% overall, among ethnic minorities it was 25.4% and among black youths nationwide it was estimated at between 55% and 60%.

It was precisely that group, displaced from the labour market in such high numbers, which bore the brunt of police oppression in cities such as London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. It was they, too, that black police officers, often in operational groups with their white colleagues, were frequently confronting on the streets.

Black police officers drew strength from the political struggles in their own communities to confront the racism they were experiencing in the police service.  It is their identification with that resistance in communities, invariably led by young people however spontaneously, that gave rise eventually to the formation of the Black Police Association in the Metropolitan Police Service in 1994. 

By 1999, when the Home Office framed its plan of action in response to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’s findings and recommendations, it was mandating chief constables in the 43 police forces in England and Wales to support the development and work of Black Police Associations among their black officers and civilian staff.

Throughout the 1970s, there was a debate within the trade union movement and in the Labour Party at local level about the need for autonomous black political organisation within their ranks. This debate was fuelled by the widespread evidence of trade unions failing to acknowledge the extent of racial discrimination among their white membership and to properly represent black members who brought complaints of racial discrimination.

By 1981 and the New Cross Massacre and Day of Action, communities generally and black members of the Labour Party in particular were challenging not just trade unions, but Labour run councils and the Labour Party at national level about their record in defending the rights of black people and combating racism in their employment practices, service delivery and selection procedures governing both local and national representation.  This, it must be remembered, was a period when it was taken for granted that the Labour Party could depend on the black vote in local and general elections.

The Labour Party Black Sections movement grew out of that community agitation and by 1983 was able to table a demand for greater representation at the Labour Party conference.  Four years later, four Black Sections members, Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz were elected to Parliament as Britain’s first post-war black MPs.

Marc Wadsworth, himself an original Black Sections member, writing in the Guardian in October 2008 to mark the 25th anniversary of Black Sections stated:

None of the movement’s achievements would have been possible without protest and agitation. The uprisings that occurred in the early 1980s in Brixton, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere acted as a wake-up call to a society that was either indifferent or hostile to the demands of disenfranchised and disadvantaged black people. But the legitimate calls for fair representation made by black communities whose electoral support was given overwhelmingly to Labour were stubbornly resisted by the party leadership of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, who were obsessed with defeating a rising left-wing rank and file.

Despite this opposition, Black Sections won. We achieved a 500-fold increase in African-Caribbean and Asian representation in town halls around the country, four black council leaders, four black MPs, and Bill Morris as the first black trade union general secretary. On top of that, black self-organised groups were formed in trade unions and even by police officers.  And the TUC created places on its general council and executive for black representatives.

The New Cross Massacre Black People’s Day of Action was both the application of a process of self organisation on a massive scale and an unleashing of people’s power and self assertiveness that impacted upon even the most resistant institutions in the society.  The tried and tested principles and method of organisation that the late John La Rose as Chair of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and others from the movement he led brought to the community’s response to the massacre laid the foundations for sustained action by the mass of unemployed black youths, by black police officers, by Labour Party supporters and many other sections of the black community.

The horror of the New Cross Massacre, compounded by the crass and incompetent response of the State (prime minister, police investigation, coroner) will undoubtedly be a memory the survivors and relatives cannot erase.  The political advances the massacre spurred and the momentous contribution to change in British society and to the self-empowerment of black people that the response to the tragedy triggered will hopefully remain lasting monuments to the memory of those who perished”.

Gus John, London, April 2011

The formation of the National Black Footballers Association will be a process of self-organization on a collective scale and an unleashing of black players’ power and self-assertiveness in the wake of decades of racist treatment while doing nothing else but exhibiting their artfulness on the  pitch and bringing enjoyment to followers of the sport.

It will be a wake-up call for the FA, PFA, League Managers Association, EUFA and for players, managers, referees and football fans alike.

It will take the very concept of ‘Kick It Out’ to a higher level and ensure that the organization grows and is capable of responding in a robust and timely manner to racially aggravated conduct by players, managers, referees and fans, and has the resources to do the critical campaigning and public education work that has been its ‘raison detre’ since the early days of ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’.

Picture (home): “Footballer” by Eaux d’Artifice (Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

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