Offside, 15 October

Kick 'anti-racism' out of football.

Duleep Allirajah

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Topics Politics

Football is failing to tackle racism in the game, according to a new report from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). ‘Football’s authorities and clubs are not taking racism seriously’, claims CRE chairman Trevor Phillips. ‘They are not doing enough to promote equal opportunities off the pitch and remove the barriers that prevent ethnic minorities working at all levels of the sport.’ (1)

Oh dear God, not another report on racism in football. You would have thought that researchers might have found more groundbreaking subjects to investigate. You know, like studying things we didn’t already know about. Trying to discover the causes of cancer might be a good place to start.

Anyway, why does football get singled out as an exemplar of racism? It is ironic that an industry so frequently accused of importing too many foreign players and managers should be just as frequently branded as racist. In fact, football is one of the few arenas in public life where black people can and do succeed. Indeed they are overrepresented in football. Twenty per cent of professional footballers are black, yet black people constitute just 2.3 per cent of the population of England.

But that’s not enough for the CRE, which complains that there are too few ethnic minority managers, directors and administrators. ‘There is a striking disparity between the relatively high number of black footballers and the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the boardrooms and governance arrangements of football clubs and national football associations’, concludes the report (2). The CRE has drawn up an action plan requiring clubs and FA bodies to overhaul their recruitment and training procedures, adopt equal opportunities policies, and set targets for tackling the under-representation of ethnic minorities. The CRE action plan reads like a full employment charter for race consultants and diversity trainers, but would it benefit anyone else?

I don’t think so. No doubt plenty of black and Asian youngsters dream of becoming professional footballers, but do they really aspire to sit on county FA committees? There would have be something seriously wrong with them if they did. Some poor bastards are now going to be dragooned on to these wretched bodies just so that the FA can meet its ethnic representation targets.

The CRE wants all football clubs to develop what it calls ‘representation strategies’ by July 2006. The problem with these affirmative action-style policies is that they send out the message that ethnic minorities cannot get jobs on merit, but instead need a bureaucratic hand-up. This is patronising – and counter-productive. If more black managers or administrators are hired as a consequence of such policies, there will always be the lingering suspicion that they only got the job because of the colour of their skin. How does that advance the cause of racial equality?

Admittedly, football clubs may not be the most enlightened of employers, but I’d rather see black and Asians succeed on merit. Black footballers broke into what was then an exclusively white man’s game in the 1970s and 80s, at a time when terrace racism was at its worst. More to the point, they established themselves without the anti-racist policies or representation strategies that proliferate today. So why can’t aspiring black managers or aspiring black FA blazers (if any such creatures exist) do the same?

Former Liverpool and England midfielder John Barnes has argued that, whereas black sporting prowess conforms to the conventional racial stereotype, the notion that black people possess the intellectual wherewithal to become managers is at odds with that stereotype. This is true, but we shouldn’t forget that the pioneering black footballers also defied the prevailing myths of their time.

Black players were seen as flair players, more likely to be tricky wingers or pacy strikers than disciplined defenders or midfield enforcers. They were perceived as mentally weak, lacking leadership qualities, and as not to ‘fancy it’ in the cold English winters. Former Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades’ infamous comments about black footballers encapsulated these perceptions. ‘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’, he said.

The old racial myths about black footballers were eroded not by action plans or diversity training programmes, but by black players debunking them on the pitch. Now it is up to black people to demonstrate – without the helping hand of the race bureaucrats – that they can succeed as managers and administrators. There are no bureaucratic shortcuts to equality.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) CRE Press Release, 11 October 2004

(2) Commission for Racial Equality, ‘Racial Equality in Football: A Survey’, October 2004

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