Just as the football leagues have taken to the field to restart, the honeymoon phase of coronating football’s return has suddenly been mixed with an urgent overtone. Racism is once again plaguing the story. This time, the response has been different. And it is for an imperative reason.
The visually plain brutal treatment by the Minneapolis Police Department towards George Floyd, an African American, has overwhelmed the minds of millions of people. It catalysed distinctive protests, distressing police brutality against citizens and journalists alike, carnage, looting and an unmistakable social divide.
Through social media, external societies have united in support. Protests have spread like wildfire across North America and Europe. Floyd’s ‘I can’t breathe’ plea has transformed into a painful symbolic meaning. His final words have been imprinted into our minds. Regardless of a global pandemic, we have not been able to escape these events. And neither has football.
Necessarily players appear to be no longer concerned with being media robots. Instead, they want a voice, and they want their voice to be heard. The first football weekend saw Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Marcus Thuram bend his knee in solidarity, Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and Archraf Hakimi displayed their ‘justice for George Floyd’ messages, Schalke’s Western McKennie wore an armband labelled ‘for George’ and Tyrone Mings protested in Birmingham.
This has been followed up with groups of players kneeling, wearing black armbands and displaying warm-up tops clearly supporting Black Lives Matters. Players, like Mings and Thuram, have taken to social media in the past three weeks to further their message. They want us to know this is a watershed moment and, from now on, to expect footballers to rise to social activist status.
It is clear racism exists within our society. Football especially has been a platform for racism to manifest. The Home Office revealed in January 2020 that there was a drastic increase in racist incidents within three years. Racist reports rose from 98 to 152 between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 season.
Kick It Out statistics displayed an even greater number of discriminatory related incidents during the 2018-19 campaign. Their figures showed that racist abuse in English football rose from 192 to 274 (43%). Faith-based discriminatory incidents, such as anti-Semitism and islamophobia, jumped from 36 to 63 (75%). Accounting for all forms of discriminatory remarks in English grassroots and professional football, their figures showed the number of incidents increased from 312 to 422 (32%); while 159 reports were in relation to social media abuse. In total, the 581 reports are more than double the figure of five years ago and it is the seventh consecutive year that the number of discriminatory incidents has risen.
In an interview with The Guardian, Sport England member Chris Grant compared British sport to the South African apartheid.
“Whatever the intentions of any particular individuals or organisations, sport in the UK conforms to Lord Macpherson’s definition of institutional racism” Grant stated. “You can look at some sports and think things are OK but scratch the surface and you’ll see significant imbalances exist. Eight of the 23 players in England’s men’s football squad for the 2018 World Cup were black or mixed race. By coincidence, that was the same number as BAME members of the 100-plus FA council at that time. It was also higher than the number of BAME managers or head coaches of the then 92 clubs…. the inequalities are so deeply rooted within sport’s structures and assumptions that the situation amounts to a kind of apartheid hiding in plain sight.”
And yet this is only the tip of the iceberg as the disease lingers throughout Europe. Mesut Özil, who has Turkish ancestry and grew up in Germany, displayed his anger towards the embedded ‘racism’ within Germany after a published photo showed him with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In a long statement published on Twitter on 22nd July 2018, he defended the meaning of the photo and alleged that, in the eyes of Reinhard Grindel (the former head of the German Football Federation) and his supporters, he was German when they won but he was an immigrant when they lost. He also criticised the additional racism he had received from the German media and fans. In one instance, he recounted how a German fan said to him, “Özil, f*** off you Turkish s**t, p*** off you Turkish pig”. Özil received little public support from his national teammates; Toni Kroos even claimed racism “does not exist” within the German Football Federation and the national team.
It is impossible to forget the other significant moments when the disease has gripped football: Dani Alves having a banana thrown at him from the stands; Inaki Williams being racially abused by Espanyol fans; that terrible night in Belarus for the English national team; the Luis Suarez, John Terry, Kiko Casilla and Fernando Forestieri cases; and the countless times Russian fans have been banned from fixtures for racism.
In September, the Fare chief, an anti-discriminatory body, labelled racism as ‘rot deep’ in Italian football. Three months later, the Serie A believed a monkey was the right visual figure to coincide with their anti-racist PR campaign. It was an excruciating moment.
The despicable examples of racism in football go on and on with no end in sight. It is why footballers must be given the support from the media, clubs, governing bodies, and fans to exploit the platform they have worked tirelessly to achieve. Colin Kaepernick’s legacy is hellbent on athletes from all sports to speak up. Institutionalised racism has no borders, so neither should the fight against it.
Rhian Brewster, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba – three players who have suffered racism in the past – posted emotional views on the issue when the anti-racist movement began to gain early momentum. Brewster referred to how a black man’s reality has not changed from the real depictions in Roots and Boyz in the Hood; while Pogba and Rashford reflected on the hurt and pain black people live through.
Meanwhile, Andre Gray explored his own experiences in an interview with The Guardian. He labelled the people who do not understand the protests in England as ‘ignorant’ and is grateful the UK does not have armed police as black people are ‘stereotyped’ and ‘judged’ just like in America.
In more detail, he said, “I can’t even count how many times I’ve been pulled over. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to a club and not got in, how many times a security guard has followed me round a shop. I can’t count how many times that somebody has asked me if I’m a footballer because I’ve come out of a nice car. Look, at the end of the day, I’m three people in this country. And that’s either a footballer, a rapper or a drug dealer. These are the facts.”
Other footballers and clubs, like Chelsea and Liverpool, displayed their support through posting their players kneeling at training, hash-tagging Black Lives Matter and blacking out their social media for #BlackoutTuesday. The number of clubs who took the moment to directly associate themselves with the protests is an important occasion. In the past, clubs have always denounced racism and implemented their own investigatory system if racism occurred in the stands or on the field.
However, they have never so fervently supported a human rights organisation. Football has always distanced itself from political matters and from being a social justice leader, even though it has always pushed the narrative, through FIFA law 4.5. It states personal, political, or religious slogans, statements or images are banned from being displayed inside the stadium. Specifically, it forbids from honouring any person, either dead or alive, group, organisation, political party or event, and government.
FIFA deleted a tweet showing Sancho celebrate with his message as it broke their own rules. Nonetheless, after criticism spread because Sancho was disciplined by the referee for displaying the message (though Hakimi was not disciplined), FIFA president Gianni Infantino publicly endorsed Sancho and other players to continue the anti-racist and anti-violence fight. In fact, FIFA would ‘applaud’ it. The German FA decided against punishing the Bundesliga players who protested as a result.
Football now cannot backtrack from their public support of Black Lives Matter. Players are wearing shirts in support before matches and wearing armbands in solidarity. The Premier League has even dedicated the first twelve fixtures to the movement by having ‘Black Lives Matter’ printed on the back of the shirts in replace of the players’ names. The athletes have been given a free license by their leagues and FIFA to champion the issue and become true social activist figures. It is set in stone.
The misunderstanding of the ‘knee’ will most likely explode once again as the Premier League restarts and players begin to kneel. Just like in America, people will take it as an offence. But in actual fact, it must be taken with respect. Colin Kaepernick started to bend his knee because a retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer advised him to do so. There is no malice in the symbol, only a silent protest on the institutionalised racism that surrounds us.
Though it is without a doubt football clubs, organisations and players will brand social activism. Where they have previously chosen to shape their reputations outside of this realm, the NBA, Nike, Lebron James and Kaepernick embraced it. They have directly implemented social activism within their business model. James views his ‘More Than An Athlete’ campaign and his Uninterrupted brand as a mission. On the matter last year, he said, “we [athletes] are not small, we are actually giants in this world of sport and this world in general”. He wants to use the stature athletes have for the forces of good.
Raheem Sterling became football’s first branded social activist after speaking out against the racism he experienced at Stamford Bridge in December 2018. He worked in conjunction with Nike to produce an advert with the tag “speaking up doesn’t always make life easier. But easy never changed anything”.
In an interview with BBC Newsnight, Sterling was asked if his job has been made harder since speaking up. In response, he said, “To be fair, first and foremost, I don’t really think about my job. When things like this happen, I think about what is right. And at this moment in time, there’s only so much people can take. There’s only so much communities and other backgrounds can take, especially black people.
“It’s been going on for hundreds of years and people are tired. People are ready for changes and I keep saying this word. I see a lot of people on socials and stuff supporting the cause. But this is something that needs more than just talking. We need to actually implement change and highlight the places that do need changes. This is something that I will continue to do. [I will] spark these debates and get people in my industry looking at themselves and thinking what they can do to give people an equal chance in this country. Hopefully, other industries as well can do that in everyday society, and the system as well.”
However, this does not perpetuate a perfect relationship between championing social activism and branding or supporting the cause will be designed and executed. The NBA, Nike and Lebron James could not stop a flood of criticism from all angles during the NBA’s China crisis in October. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protests and China fiercely responded. James, the NBA and Nike effectively backed down. Their limit of social activism had been reached.
Likewise, in football, it is inevitable a limit will be hit. Alternatively, individual figures, clubs and organisations will also see it as an opportunity to launch a cascade of social media PR which reeks of hypocrisy. You could sense the sheer amount of falsehood in the NFL and San Francisco 49ers (Kaepernick’s former team) social activism statements they posted on social media. Even after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said they were ‘wrong’ to not listen to players it has to be taken with a grain of salt because of their track record. The same could be said to certain clubs and players in football.
At first glance Leeds United’s blacked-out Twitter, a sign of support for the social media movement seemed to be a simple gesture. But it did not take long to remember that Leeds and their goalkeeper Kiko Casilla are reportedly yet to apologise to Jonathan Leko for Casilla using a racial insult towards him.
The same can be said for John Terry who posted a blacked-out photo on Instagram. Rio Ferdinand said, three years on from the incident in 2014, that Terry had never personally apologised to his brother, Anton Ferdinand, for the racial smear he used, as well as the trauma their family went through. It is still unknown whether Terry has personally apologised.
The Athletic also recently revealed the hypocrisy Chelsea have flouted in the public by battling civil claims that players were a part of “an environment where racially abusive behaviour became normalised”. Due to this, four former players from the 1980s and 1990s accuse the club of being responsible for their long-psychological damage, such as depression. One of the players was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He believes the “feral environment” at Chelsea was responsible because they were treated “like a race of f***ing dogs“. Chelsea are refusing to pay liabilities to the players, despite announcing they “would do the right thing“. The case is quite the opposite to the attitude the club showed when they posted their ‘Black Lives Matter’ support on Twitter. The full case will be heard in the High Court in March 2022.
Equally so, organisations will leap at the opportunity to exercise a cheap PR opportunity. UEFA have historically led with their notorious ‘say no to racism’ campaign. They joined the black-out social media movement while referencing Black Lives Matter, with the caption “say NO to racism, together we are stronger”. It was going all-in in backing the human rights group and the players who have supported it.
However, this is the same UEFA who ordered Belarus to play one game behind closed doors and fined them €75,000 for the shameful racism their fans showed against England (Nicklas Bendtner was fined £80,000 for exposing Paddy Power’s logo, an unofficial sponsor of Euro 2012). This was the same UEFA that forced QPR CEO Lee Hoos to publicly embarrass them, and FIFA, by stating they “treat complaints about racism like a complaint about a broken seat in a stadium”. This was the same UEFA who humiliatingly fined Lazio €20,000 after their fans racially abused Mario Balotelli. And finally, this was the same UEFA that gave Azerbaijan the Europa League final in which Armenian and Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan was forced to stay home as he believed his safety could not be guaranteed. Their track record of racism and combating social issues is the definition of embarrassing.
The hypocrisy extends to FIFA who gifted Russia and China, two countries with deep human rights issues, with the World Cup. Similarly, FIFA handed China the opportunity to be the first hosts of the revamped Club World Cup, despite the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims and the dictatorship they overlook.
In December, Infantino deflected the issue simply by stating, “Maybe that with going there, playing there, in China or anywhere else in the world, people will continue to speak about topics like this, to raise these questions, and maybe eventually the situations for people are going to improve”. In other words, ‘I don’t really know if the Chinese government will stop oppressing its population, but I will take their money anyway’.
Infantino also hit back against the criticism FIFA has received on other issues, like Qatar exploiting migrant workers working on the building sites of football stadiums. FIFA could not “solve issues that the world is not capable of solving”, Infantino insisted. “How many billions in trade is done every year by everyone in the world with all these countries that are criticised. Nobody seems to have a problem with that. Suddenly it comes to football and there is a problem.”
And this is the eventual problem with branding social activism. There are boundaries to how far a brand will go. Ultimately, their task is to ensure the money fountain continues to pour, not to be the white knight on social and political injustices. Though this example completely contradicts FIFA’s pursuit of fighting racism and violence. The world has struggled to solve either issue, but it is a key PR campaign. Why? Because there are no financial repercussions.
In a similar incident, Özil, a Muslim, condemned the oppressive Chinese government and their treatment of Uighur Muslims on Twitter but he got little public support from Arsenal. “Regarding the comments made by Mesut Özil on social media, Arsenal must make a clear statement,” the club said. “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”
This view disintegrated when they posted their support for the black community, ‘celebrating diversity’ and ‘belonging together’. Again, it is likely the decision not to make a stand with their player was financially motivated. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV did not televise Arsenal’s following match against Manchester City and removed Özil from Chinese editions of Pro Evolution Soccer. Arsenal bowed to China’s pressure like the NBA, Lebron James, and Nike.
So as European football aims to finish their season this summer, we can all finally have the closure fans have been waiting for. Though not exactly in the environment we anticipated. Liverpool can get their hands on their first Premier League title and their 19th first-division crown overall; Bayern Munich can continue their dominance in Germany; Barcelona and Real Madrid can fight out their title bids, and the Championship chaos can reign again.
But amongst all the anti-climactic hysteria, racism will still be the underlining issue on people’s minds. Some players, clubs and organisations will be sincere in their social activism; others will just continue with their PR garbage. The hypocrisy spewing from them is just as inevitable as the next condemnation cycle appears on the horizon and we will need to do this all over again.