Offside, 29 April

Ron Atkinson did more for racial equality in football than the anti-racist brigade.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Tell you what Clive, the big orange fella wasn’t in the wide-awake club when he made those comments. That’s got to go down as a dreadful rick.

Is Ron Atkinson a racist? The issue has been the hot topic of debate ever since the perma-tanned football summariser called Chelsea’s Marcel Desailly a ‘fucking lazy thick nigger’. Big Ron thought his microphone was switched off but his unguarded comments were broadcast in the Middle East. It is ironic that Atkinson, who had become a cult figure on account of his idiosyncratic expressions – known as Ronglish to his devotees – should find his TV career in ruins after one particularly ill-advised turn of phrase.

To some, like Guardian sports correspondent Vivek Chaudhary, Atkinson’s comments demonstrate that English football is still a white man’s game. ‘Despite numerous campaigns among players and fans to try and tackle racism, the game is still submerged in a sea of stereotypes about foreigners and alien cultures’, bemoaned Chaudhary, overlooking the minor fact that English professionals had just voted for a black Frenchman as their player of the year (1). In truth the debate about whether Ron is a racist tells us more about how the concept of anti-racism has been twisted beyond recognition, than about the extent of racism in football.

Of course, to call someone a nigger is an insulting racial slur. Big Ron should have known that the word ‘nigger’ has become the most taboo word in our society. Did he also fail to notice that careless racial talk cost Tory MP Ann Winterton and TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk their jobs recently? He should forfeit his spotter’s badge for not seeing that one coming. But does he deserve to forfeit his TV career too? I don’t think so.

Ron Atkinson should not be pilloried as a racist for one simple reason – that he treated black players equally. Atkinson became manager of West Bromwich Albion in 1977, a time when black players had bananas hurled at them and were routinely subjected to monkey grunts and chants of ‘kill the nigger’. Ron was one of the pioneering managers who ignored skin colour and selected players on merit. ‘They could be yellow or purple and have two heads as long as they can play’, he used to say.

The perception of black footballers back then was perfectly encapsulated by former Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades’ infamous remarks that ‘the black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains and some common sense’. Ron Atkinson broke the mould by building his team around three black players – Brendan Batson, Laurie Cunningham, and Cyrille Regis. Atkinson, moreover, debunked the myth that black players did not possess leadership qualities by appointing Batson his club captain.

Atkinson, however, was never well versed in the PC linguistic conventions that are now obligatory. He dubbed his trio of black stars the ‘Three Degrees’, nicknames which, as Times columnist Simon Barnes observes, ‘betray the uneasiness white people felt about accepting non-whites, an uneasiness papered over with nervous, unfunny jokes, much as people do at a cocktail party when they don’t know each other’ (2). More seriously, Paul McGrath, who served under Atkinson at Manchester United, has revealed that he occasionally called black players ‘coons’ on the training ground.

McGrath, though, notably refuses to brand his former boss a racist. ‘He was one of the few managers who helped black players in their careers and he treated everyone well’, said McGrath. Other black players too, while not condoning Atkinson’s words, could not bring themselves to label him a racist. ‘I can’t defend what he said but there is no way he is a racist’, said Carlton Palmer. ‘No black player who played under Ron would have done so if he was racist in the way he treated them, but his comments this week were hugely offensive’, said Brendan Batson.

The equivocal reaction of these black players towards Big Ron’s blunder reflects a wider confusion about how we define racism. Is it about an individual’s use of language or the way our society treats black people? I reckon it’s the latter. The crucial question is whether black people are treated as equals or as inferiors. Ron Atkinson was the first football manager to practise equal treatment. To me that’s the essence of anti-racism. Or at least it ought to be. However, over the past 20 years, anti-racist campaigns have been concerned less with equal treatment and more with enforcing the correct racial etiquette.

I think that reducing anti-racism to a question of good racial manners is a soft option. It’s easy to learn by rote the correct terminology, far easier than delivering real equality. And that’s why I’m defending Big Ron regardless of his racial gaffes. In helping to make football one of the few social arenas in which black people are treated as equals, Atkinson did something far more radical than anything the mind-your-language brigade will ever achieve.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Ugly side of the beautiful game, Guardian, 23 April 2004

(2) Here it is in black and white: Big Ron may be silly, but he’s no racist, The Times, (London), 23 April 2004

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Topics Politics


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