The phony war over football racism

The current row has reduced racism and anti-racism to name-calling, handshakes and yellow t-shirts.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Racism in football. Again. Yawn.

This time it’s a row over t-shirts. To wear or not to wear, that is the question. The token gesture of wearing Kick it Out t-shirts has been challenged by the equally token gesture of not wearing one. Black players, we are told, are ANGRY and some are planning to set up a breakaway union. Certain high-profile players, notably Rio Ferdinand and Jason Roberts, have refused to wear Kick It Out t-shirts to mark the campaign’s annual Week of Tokenistic Gestures (or whatever it’s called). The FA has been accused of being too ‘soft’ on Chelsea captain John Terry for using the words ‘f**king black c**t’. There’s lots of posturing on all sides, but frankly this is a phony war. Sorry to sound like a stuck record, but just as name-calling isn’t racism, nor is wearing – or not wearing – a t-shirt anything to do with anti-racism.

The latest race spat was ignited when Reading striker Jason Roberts announced that he wouldn’t be wearing a Kick it Out t-shirt. Roberts felt that that the FA’s punishment of John Terry was ‘a year too late’ and that the four-match ban ‘was not a heavy enough sanction’. Sir Alex Ferguson was nonplussed by Roberts’ stance. ‘When you do something, and everyone believes in it, you should all do it together. There shouldn’t be a lone sheep wandering off’, said the United manager.

Fergie’s bewilderment soon turned to his trademark purple rage when one of his own sheep, Rio Ferdinand, wandered off without the required Kick It Out t-shirt in the warm-up before the game against Stoke. ‘It is embarrassing for me. He will be dealt with, no doubt about that’, fumed Fergie. However, within a couple of days the United boss had backed down. ‘I spoke to Rio. I have listened to his conviction and I think it is quite compelling. I can understand his stance. It has been a communication problem more than anything else.’

So, was everything rosy in the garden of tokenistic anti-racist gestures? It appears not. Fergie may have made his peace with Rio but then came reports that some black players were setting up their own Continuity PFA. According to a report in the Daily Mail: ‘The union – which has a working name of the Federation of Black Players but will be open to players from all ethnic backgrounds who share a desire to combat racism in English football – will be self-funded by professionals at every level.’ Peter Herbert, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, confirmed that preliminary discussions were under way to create an organisation that would take a more ‘radical’ approach to tackling racism.

Some black players have opposed the idea of a separate union. Rio and Anton Ferdinand issued a statement pledging to ‘work with football’s existing organisations towards the betterment of the game and to achieve immediate action’. Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chairman Clarke Carlisle warned against the ‘divisive’ consequences of a breakaway. ‘When you establish a black players’ union, it would instantly define “us and them” and that’s something we really need to work against’, said Carlisle. He could have added ‘bloody splitters’.

There’s more than a whiff about the Popular Front of Judea about this whole debacle. For a start this is a split with a remarkable degree of agreement on both sides. There is unanimous agreement that racist language is verboten. The debate – if you can call it that – is over the severity of penalties for racial abuse. Former Newcastle goalkeeper Shaka Hislop described John Terry’s four-match ban as ‘soft’ and said that there was anger amongst black players after what he described as a ‘terrible 12 months in terms of racism in the game’. Hislop said: ‘For too long, black and minority players have felt that the authorities have paid only lip-service to the serious issue of racism in the English game.’

So what has this terrible 12 months’ of racism amounted to? Two incidents of racist abuse on the pitch, a few malign internet trolls and a handful of complaints about abusive fans. It’s hardly evidence that the English game is plagued by racism. The truth is that racial abuse – from players or fans – appears shocking precisely because it is so rare. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live recently, Jason Roberts himself admitted that the last time he’d been racially abused by another player was five years ago. In the whole of the 2010-11 season, there were 43 arrests in England for racist or indecent chanting. The problem – if you can call it a problem – is being blown out of all proportion.

Professional football is one of the few genuinely colour-blind professions. A quarter of professional footballers are black. The Premier League is awash with foreign players. The bad old days of monkey grunts and banana skins are long gone. So what is it that Jason Roberts and his disgruntled colleagues think needs to change? The player says he wants better funding for Kick It Out, more staff in the PFA’s equality department and positive action to increase the number of black coaches. In other words, more jobs for the boys. David James was spot on when he accused anti-racist groups of talking up the problem. ‘I think that some people have an agenda to keep themselves in existence and, as a player, I don’t see the racism issue – anywhere, personally’, said the former England goalkeeper.

The John Terry and Luis Suarez incidents aren’t proof that racism is still a problem. What they tell us is that the meaning of racism has changed. Many will argue that, while a certain level of banter and rivalry is acceptable at football, racial abuse crosses the decency threshold. Racist speech is, in other words, a modern taboo. It is no longer seen as the expression of a political ideology but as something more akin to a sin. Anti-racism, by the same token, is no longer a political project but an inquisition against racial name-calling. Footballers are obliged to demonstrate allegiance to the anti-racist orthodoxy by observing new devotional rituals: wearing t-shirts, pre-match handshakes and reading out prepared anti-racist statements.

‘A t-shirt is not the answer’, complained Ian Wright in a recent Sun column. But this kind of tokenism is the logical consequence of reducing what was once a political and social problem to a question of following the correct racial etiquette. It is now all about language, symbols and gestures. Of course, wearing t-shirts doesn’t make us equal but neither does the criminalisation of name-calling.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics


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