Football and the anti-racism lobby

Recently, The Times newspaper published what it called a “manifesto to fight racism” in football. This comes in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents, most notably the abuse of English players on international duty in Montenegro.

The manifesto calls for, among other things, greater diversity among the people running the game, harmonisation of punishments for racism across the various governing bodies, and for the authorities to support players who walk off in protest at racist abuse. There clearly is a problem with so few black players, who have obvious expertise and credentials, making it through to management. But much of the recent focus on racism in the game seems to lack a sense of proportion, with all too often, the worst being assumed.

The manifesto has been endorsed by some giants of football, past and present, including Raheem Sterling, Andrew Cole, Vincent Kompany, and Viv Anderson. Also signing, were representatives of campaigning groups including Kick It Out and FARE, along with politicians including sports minister Mims Davies, Sadiq Kahn, and Andy Burnham.

There is a whiff of hyperbole to the whole piece, best evidenced by a quote from Piara Powar, who is executive director of FARE. He is quoted uncritically, as saying:

“Football is going through a pandemic of racism, there is no doubt we are seeing a more poisonous environment at many matches and in football culture online.”

But what evidence is there to support Powar’s claim of a “pandemic”? The Times’ own reporting provides little to support such a claim. Beyond a handful of high-profile incidents, the only statistics on reports of discrimination in football come from Kick It Out.

In 2017/18, there were 520 reports of discrimination made to this organisation. Of those, 273 or 51 per cent were reports of racism.

Downloading the data from Kick It Out gives us a bit more insight into what is going on. 110 reports of racism were from the professional game, while 82 were from grassroots level. Surprisingly, just 87 reports were of racism related to social media.

Such data should be handled with caution since they only reflect the number of incidents that Kick It Out is made aware of and successfully records. The actual number of racist incidents will in all likelihood be higher, but by how much, we can’t say. Nor do they reveal anything about the nature of these incidents or their severity; do they reflect poorly chosen words, or mass chanting, or acts of violence?

Figures from the FA show 902 incidents in 2015/16 – higher but these include types of discrimination other than racial.

While such numbers are limited in what they tell us, when you consider the thousands of football matches that occur each season and the hundreds of thousands of fans who attend games and post about them on social media, it is striking just how few reports come through to Kick It Out. That they have just 87 reports of racism on social media – something they themselves could actively monitor – would suggest that claims of a “pandemic” are excessive. Note that Kick It Out actively encourages reporting and provides mobile phone aps in order to make it easier and yet this is all it has to show.

It is clear from The Times reporting that the proposals are not ones dreamt up by its staff. Moreover, there is something rather strange about the way in which minority people are described:

“It does no sit comfortably that there are so few black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in positions of power. Even with the best intentions, how can those who traditionally occupy positions of power properly understand and represent those minorities? That is why the ideas in this manifesto… were created by BAME people in the game, not by us.”

How are those from an ethnic minority so different that they are impossible to understand? When did anti-racism switch from stressing commonality and mutual understanding between different groups of people, to what might be described as the exoticisation of minorities by (presumably white) journalists who denounce themselves as empathetically incompetent?

And those employed in the game are not there to represent anyone other than themselves. They are there to do a job, which is to provide a game we can all enjoy, should we wish to.

Unanswered is the question of who actually did write the manifesto. Perhaps this is best answered by asking cui bono? Among the manifesto’s recommendations are:

  • Football authorities should fund “equality and diversity projects”
  • The establishment of an “independent review group” to ensure football’s authorities are following procedures and applying sanctions correctly, made up of legal representatives, football administrators and campaigners.
  • Allow football authorities to introduce a “specific sponsorship category for anti-discrimination” in which companies can sponsor community inclusion activities, as well as anti-racism and other anti-discrimination activities

So basically, more money available for projects that would presumably be the preserve of campaigning groups, such as Kick It Out and FARE, plus more regulation overseen by these very same types of group. Note that the third bullet point doesn’t make too much sense. What is currently stopping companies from sponsoring such charitable activities?

Moreover, why is there a need for an independent review group? There already exists something in the FA called the Inclusion Advisory Board, set up in 2013. According to the FA’s website:

“The IAB will provide guidance on all equality matters and will monitor the delivery of Football’s Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Action Plan for 2013-2017.”

According to The Guardian newspaper, the role of the IAB was to “widen diversity in the sport as well as clarify anti-discrimination regulations and sanctions”. The board was made up largely of campaigning groups, including a representative of Kick It Out. While not a direct match to what is called for by the manifesto, it is surely a close enough fit, that could be reformed if necessary.

Perhaps Heather Rabbatts, the first and former head of the IAB might explain why it is insufficient, since she is a signatory to the new manifesto calling for another group to largely replicate its work? Why does its founding mission still need to be reiterated and a new organisation set up to fulfill it?

Surely independent holding to account of the football authorities can be best carried out through civil society, the media, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, if necessary. That is to say, organisations that are genuinely independent of the football authorities.

Some of the other proposals in the manifesto are also calling for things that are already in place. For instance, it calls for a “direct liability” approach to sanctions for racist behaviour. This is basically legalese for ‘no excuses’ – clubs and countries are responsible for the actions of their supporters.

But as the FA pointed out:

“Since 2013 there has been direct liability for discriminatory behaviour in relation to mass chanting.”

The manifesto calls for “special measures” for repeat offenders but the FA claims it already “works to create action plans with clubs for any offences, not just repeat offences”.

The manifesto says that:

“Sanctions for racism and discrimination should begin with a minimum partial closure of a stadium, rising to expulsion from a competition for repeat offences or mass discriminatory chanting.”

But according to a BBC report:

“The minimum punishment from UEFA for an incident of racism is a partial stadium closure, while a second offence results in one match being played behind closed doors and a fine of 50,000 euros (£42,500)”

Provisions are made available by UEFA for match forfeiting, points deductions, and disqualification.

Meanwhile Millwall are currently facing the prospect of a stadium closure after some sections of their support were recorded making derogatory chants about Pakistanis, under existing FA rules. They are also facing a police investigation. Millwall FC itself has volunteered to ban those supporters found to have been involved for life and has even gone so far as to close a section of its ground in order to root out the offenders. It has increased the numbers of stewards and police at matches.

Fines and expulsion from competitions are also part of the FA’s existing arsenal of punishments. And while the manifesto is specifically calling for ‘harmonisation’ of punishments, there is no reason to believe that different footballing authorities having the same sets of punishments made available would be any better at affecting behavioural change among a minority of fans, than a system where there is variation.

The manifesto has called for greater representation of minorities in positions of leadership in the game. A figure of 1 per cent of executive positions in clubs, leagues and football bodies across Europe is cited. This contrasts with around 25 to 30 per cent of professional players across all English divisions being black.

While this is a desirable goal, you cannot just have a diversity target or quota and then things just fall into place. The FA has been trying for years to accomplish this, with the help of many who are signatories to the manifesto. And again, it already has a diversity plan in place, replete with targets. Moreover, part of Kick It Out’s founding drive when it was established in 1997, was to increase the number of British Asians taking part in the game – something that has just not happened.

It is hard to increase the numbers of minority coaches when the numbers qualifying are low. According to a report in the Daily Mail, out of 44 men studying for the UEFA A coaching licence at the FA’s St George’s Park facility, just 3 were not white.

Interventions designed to increase diversity at leadership are not bound to have the intended consequences. For instance, in 2014 a scheme called On Board was run in order to equip a selection of black players to be board members of football clubs, through a training course, set up by the Association of Corporate Governance Practitioners and with the backing of the FA and PFA.

So what happened to those who took the course?

Just one is a board member at a football club – Nathan Blake at Newport County. Jason Roberts is involved in the media, FIFA, as well as CONCACAF (which oversees football in the North and central Americas and the Caribbean). Chris Ramsey and Les Ferdinand have senior positions in football but are not board members per se, while Darren Moore and Michael Johnson work as managers (Moore is currently out of work after being harshly sacked from West Brom; note that Chris Hughton has also at least twice arguably been sacked harshly – at Newcastle and lately Brighton, although football is fickle). Johnson had previously stepped down from the FA Inclusion Advisory Board due to his anti-homosexual religious beliefs. Ian Taylor runs a football consultancy as well as a business making headphones.

The On Board scheme in 2014 increased the number of black board members of football clubs by one, so far as I can tell. All participants are working either elsewhere in football or in related areas but not as board members. Furthermore, there is no proof that the course had any role in improving their career prospects, nor that they would not have got jobs otherwise.

It is well known that while black players are disproportionately over-represented at the highest levels of the game, the shares of minorities working in coaching and sports management are small. According to my analysis of the Labour Force Survey, 4.5 per cent of sports coaches, instructors and officials are not white, as are 2.5 per cent of leisure and sports managers and a further 5.1 per cent of sports and leisure assistants.

While there are many ex-players who do not go into coaching but could, they cannot be forced to do so, and the existing pools from which minority individuals might be recruited from are small.

Much coverage relating to this issue portrays it as a simple story of discrimination. For instance, one subtle argument put forward by Matthew Syed in The Times has it that the many incidences of discrimination that minority footballers experience add up in sum to them pursuing other paths. This is a credible argument but the only example in Syed’s article is that of Andrew Cole. He quotes Cole as saying:

“I started doing my Uefa B [qualification] three years ago, but I told myself last year that it just wasn’t worth it… What’s the point? I honestly don’t think there is going to be anything there for me when I finish.”

Syed praises Cole’s work ethic but it’s not true that there was no opportunities in coaching for him. As Cole himself wrote in 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson was actively encouraging him and making opportunities available:

“The Boss knows that not all my intentions turn quickly into actions, and when I bumped into him at the Lowry Hotel, near Old Trafford, he pulled me up and asked: “Just when are you going to get on with your badges?”… I need to get serious about it. He ended with “I’ll be expecting you to come and see us in the very near future” – and when Sir Alex says he expects you to do something, he means it.”

In another article Cole later explained why he did not take Ferguson up:

“‘I keep telling myself I will one day, and I will. But so far something has stopped me… The fact is that it’s not my place anymore.”

Cole was coaching instead at Huddersfield but his career was seriously set back by severe illness. He is now working with Sol Campbell at Macclesfield.

Similarly, another article, this time on the BBC website, claimed there was “Not much opportunity for black players” based on an interview with Emile Heskey’s wife, Chantelle. But the same article included the admission from her:

 “as much as [Emile would] love to [go into management], he’s been put off applying because I don’t think there’s much for him”.

There is something Richard Breen called ‘Bayesian learning’ – an idea he used in order to explain why working class kids do less well in education. They look to past experience and the gains that education has brought their families and adjust their expectations and actions accordingly. It is reasonable for black footballers (and their wives) to be discouraged, given what has gone before. But gradually as more appear, more will come as expectations shift. Perhaps, Heskey would do well to pay less heed to his wife, just this once?

With all this in mind, diversity targets need to be reasonable. The Times manifesto calls for diversity targets to be set but as mentioned, the FA has them already. The FA has set itself a target to reach 16 per cent BAME employees by 2021, currently 13 per cent and 11 per cent in leadership positions, currently 5 per cent.

Are these reasonable? In truth, it is impossible to say for sure, since we do not know enough about the ethnic composition of those qualified and desiring such jobs. One can only speculate. Nevertheless, in order to increase diversity,The Times manifesto goes so far as to call for football authorities to:

“… prioritise the development of talent from ethnic minority communities in all areas.”

This is nothing other than a call for discrimination based on ethnicity which is illegal as well as wrong.

But perhaps surprisingly, the positive signs emerging from the English Football League’s adoption of the Rooney Rule are overlooked by the Times. This is the stipulation that one minority coach be given an interview for a position. The idea is to guarantee them the opportunity to speak for themselves; it lacks the bluntness of the quota or target but does lean against any biases on the behalf of football employers in hiring.

The programme is in its infancy but statistics from its second year (2017/18) show that the chances of a minority candidate getting an interview were 27 per cent compared to 16 per cent over all, rising to 52 per cent for suitably qualified minority coaches. This resulted in 16 minority candidates being appointed to coaching positions – 13 per cent of all appointees. According to the EFL, this is greater than the 8 per cent of its coaches from a minority background and 4 per cent for senior coaching positions. The figure of 13 per cent of appointments is also greater than the share of minority applicants – 9 per cent. If given enough time, initiatives such as this may provide the answer.

The manifesto’s place in the national conversation was secured thanks to an accompanying opinion piece in The Times by Manchester City and England star Raheem Sterling. While endorsing the manifesto, he argued that it did not go far enough, calling for an automatic nine-point deduction for racist abuse, as well as clubs having to play three games behind closed doors. His article was widely praised but aren’t these rather heavy-handed measures? Should a club be potentially relegated, due to a nine-point penalty, for the actions of a small and irresponsible handful of supporters? Is this genuinely fair on all those supporters who travel the length and breadth of the country to attend matches and who behave themselves? What of those staff who would lose their jobs as budgets are tightened for a lower league?

That clubs and countries might be held responsible for their supporters is reasonable but there comes a point where you cross the line into collective punishment which is wrong.

However well-intentioned, The Times manifesto does not advance a new approach; rather it highlights the vested interests of some of its signatories. The idea among so many anti-racism campaigners seems to be that transgressions are not to be handled by applying the existing rules and punishments, which they largely lobbied for, but rather are evidence of insufficient deterrent. It is always the case that more needs to be done. The refrain is constant – ‘much has been done… but we’ve a long way to go’.

We have strong measures to combat racism in football. Racist chanting has been a criminal offence since 1991 and anyone caught doing so will face up to a £1,000 fine as well as a lifetime ban imposed from their clubs, and separate banning orders from the state. Football authorities have rules and punishments in place and are even prepared to impose penalties based on probability over evidence, as was the case with John Terry.

There have been a few high-profile incidents lately – some of which can be disputed, others not. But there is also something that is called the fallacy of composition – one cannot infer that these are reflective of the state of the game as a whole and certainly claims of a return to the bad old days, are premature. The vast majority of football fans are respectful and adore their minority stars. The Times manifesto justifies an extension of certain vested interests, with the backing of uncritical footballers and journalists, while offering little of any help.

Richard Norrie

Richard Norrie Written by:

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