With Black Lives Matter banners adorning the otherwise empty stands of Premier League football grounds, you could be mistaken for thinking that the football industry cared about rising levels of racism in the game.
Yet, as Elliot Brennan has shown in these pages, the football industry has a hypocritical relationship with racism. Despite wearing the clothes of Black Lives Matter, football continues to turn a blind eye to racism going on in its own house: Elliot’s article names and shames FIFA, UEFA, Arsenal, Chelsea and Leeds in this respect. However, they are by no means the only culprits.
One of Elliot’s key points is that anti-racism has been convenient when it can be incorporated to enhance football’s brand and commercial values. However, it can also be inconvenient: When anti-racism negatively affects its brand or commercial values, the cracks begin to appear in its anti-racist facade. In this situation, football’s responses to racism and similar human rights issues vary from:
* Hanging players out to dry when their speaking out on racism contradicts their commercial interests (Arsenal and Mezut Özil)
* Actively working to prevent just outcomes in racist cases within its own house (Chelsea’s legal battle against ex-players that suffered racism at the club)
* Turning a blind eye (various FIFA World Cup tournament awards)
Since the football industry’s decisions on whether to act against racism depend on assessments of its own commercial interests, the racism issue has clearly become disposable. Black Lives Don’t Matter that much. Football’s strategies to tackle racism are accordingly half-hearted and half-baked – embedded and wrapped up, as they are, in its commercial logic. This is not just the case in the Premier League. It stretches all the way down to the grassroots, which is where racism starts.
In 2018, my refugee football club played a match with a team that had walked off the pitch the week prior to meeting us. Their decision to ‘walk’ was in protest against persistent racism directed at their centre-back. The victim, Omar, describes the incident:
It was a typical Saturday league game, an aggressive game. It all started when we made it 1-1. They were getting angry. Then they started screaming and saying stuff to me. The first thing was their number 8, who turned around and said to me, ‘I bet you go to Ink’, which is a black nightclub. I knew what he meant. To be honest, I’ve had racism on the pitch so many times. It’s not the first time it’s happened to me. Then about five minutes later, their captain said to me, ‘Where are you from?’ And I said, ‘Liverpool.’ And he said ‘I doubt that, you fucking Paki.’ I went over to our manager and said, ‘if this happens again, I’m walking off.’ Then, about 10 minutes later, their substitute comes on. This is what a lot of people don’t understand. It was not one guy shouting abuse. They get a free kick and their sub says to me, ‘You fucking immigrant,’ so, after that, I walked off.
My refugee football team resigned from the league it was playing in, with one game to go, in 2018. Our reasons related to a culture of violence, aggression and racism. Ironically, a matter of minutes after tendering our resignation, I received an email from the league which was promoting an FA Respect initiative.
Nothing had been done to promote Respect in our league throughout the season. Quite the opposite. League officials set the tone for the league. It was a tone of aggression and lack of respect. Everything else flowed from there: violence, aggression and racism on the pitch which was all overlooked.
Omar certainly felt as much when he took up his case with the county FA, which was unresponsive. Feeling ignored, he felt he had no option but to take his case to the local media, in order to obtain a hearing for the issues.
The FA didn’t get back to us [after we submitted our statements]. They didn’t even acknowledge receipt of our statements. That’s why we spoke to the newspaper. I’ve dealt with this before and I’ll be honest with you, the FA, they don’t care. Racism is not a priority for them at all. They’ve got all of these adverts out and everything but, at grassroots level, they’re not arsed. They don’t care.
It took this media coverage for the FA to actually engage with Omar on the issue. It smacked of an organisation concerned with its own public image, rather than the racism issue that had been placed before it.
It was only after the article in the local paper that they contacted our admin to say, ‘Ok, we’re going to get it properly looked at now.’ But, that’s only because we had made them look bad in the media. Still, 4 months on they were saying, ‘Oh, we don’t know. We can’t let you know because it’s a private FA case.’ And I’m like, ‘Well I’ve been racially abused. Am I not allowed to know what’s happening? They don’t care.
When Omar eventually received a date for a hearing, six months later, he says, ‘the hearing was not about racism at all. It was about ‘improper conduct.’ Moreover, the FA committee of three people that was investigating this ‘improper conduct’ threw Omar into a hostile environment to make his case.
Their manager is sitting next to me, and he’s aggressive all the way through. I’m trying to explain and he’s putting me off and being aggressive and accusing me of lying.
In this adversarial and aggressive environment, which was a mirror of the environment in which the racism problem had occurred, Omar was shouted down and, ultimately, unable to convince the FA of the validity of his claims. To add insult to injury, the FA charged his own team instead:
Five days later, they’re found not guilty. They charged us £50 for walking off the pitch. We had to pay out of our club kitty, otherwise we cannot play next season. Shocking isn’t it. It shows a lot. We went through the whole case just to be charged. And we lost our points as well. Our point [for the draw] was taken off us. They got the 3 points and didn’t get charged with anything. It’s like, we’re the actual victims here and we’re getting punished and not the perpetrators.
The black and grey of tackling racism
If you want to understand injustice in the world, talk to those who suffer it. So says the African writer, Frantz Fanon, who wrote passionately about African experiences of the racist brutality of colonial capitalism.
According to Fanon, experiencing how the world really works is axiomatic to being able to understand what needs to change. If you do not experience its brutality, then you are never going to understand what really needs to change.
For Omar, the same logic applies in football, where the gravity of racism has been relegated to ‘improper conduct’ by men in grey suits, who have not experienced racism on the football pitch.
The FA don’t have the correct attitude. They don’t know what it feels like to be racially abused. They imagine it’s like, ‘I just called you a dickhead.’ Discrimination makes you feel like you’re on your own. The colour of my skin. My ethnicity. That’s who I am. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. White males. They’ve never experienced that. They don’t know what it’s like.
Far from understanding racism through personal experience of it, the men in grey suits encounter racism as a double-sided issue. As we have seen, their key concern has been to integrate anti-racism into football’s brand value and to use it where convenient. On the other hand, racism also presents a problem to be solved which, as we have also seen, is where the cracks have appeared in the facade of the higher echelons of the game.
The same is true at the grassroots level where anti-racist action is treated as a bureaucratic inconvenience rather than an organisational mission. Rather than actually taking organisational action across all of its domains to tackle the culture of racism in grassroots football, as if it mattered, the men in grey suits rely on a standard bureaucratic complaints procedure to do the work of anti-racism. Suffice it to say that this involves yet more window dressing, as Omar tells me when he describes the composition of the panel that eventually heard his case:
‘There were 3 of them and, you know what, they had 2 ethnic minorities on it as well. There was a Pakistani woman, I’m not sure of her name. There was also a bloke, South Asian.’
This might have ticked the bureaucratic diversity boxes for the FA, but it has not worked for people like Omar who have been denied a legitimate voice in the adversarial, aggressive and toxic masculine environment of the ‘hearing’.
Moreover, bureaucratic procedures that demand ‘evidence’ of racism might suit the men in grey suits, but are ill-equipped to capture and eradicate racism which, Omar says, is too subtle to be accessed as ‘evidence’.
I’ve had it said to me so many times. ‘Paki,’ ‘Immigrant,’ ‘What are you doing here?’, You’re not even from here. But, you know what. They whisper it because they’re shit-houses. They won’t shout it out loud. They say it quietly because they know it’s my word against theirs. But, they’ve still said it. If I report that to a referee, then they say, ‘Well, only you heard it. How do I know you’re not making it up? And I say, ‘Why would I make it up?’
Fixing the system
For men in grey suits, bureaucratic procedures constitute default responses to problems such as racism. They are also convenient because they allow problems to be swept under the carpet.
They are wholly inadequate.
As Frantz Fanon would have said, the football authorities would have to ask Omar for his personal experiences of racism to know where and how these problems manifest themselves and how to address them. Taking the starting point of victims such as Omar would require no ‘evidence’ of its existence. Racism would be accepted as a fact of life.
Moreover, it would accept that racism is culturally embedded in the institutions and officials that oversee football which, it follows, cannot therefore be the ones who are changed with its eradication. Take referees, who are required to give ‘evidence’ to hearings about racism. Omar describes most referees in grassroots football in his city as
… a joke. They’re racist themselves. There’s no doubt, by the way, that the referee [in the case taken to the FA] heard at least one of the comments. But, he was never going to report it. They’re not fit to be referees.
So, what is the answer when the judges of racism are white old men that, themselves, might be racist? If, as Frantz Fanon says, this is about letting black voices speak for themselves, then Omar has his own ideas about what needs to be done.
It starts from above, with the FA, with training, with what they do with the referees. And it’s the support. They’ve got to show more support for black and ethnic players. Are they gonna do that? I’ve got no faith that they are.
In other words, racism raises questions about institutional culture and practice that cannot be left in the hands of career officials who, as this FA official confesses, seem incapable of seeing the gravity of the issues at stake.
You’ve got the referees’ course and there’s five or six games that they’re assessed on. There’s not the racism thing, but they go on the safeguarding course and all them sort of courses. But we do put on courses to try and educate them. Maybe we should do a bit more? But would the referee be interested? I don’t know. You can’t force somebody to do that sort of thing. But racism is rife in the grassroots game.
Left in the hands of men in grey suits, racism education has been relegated to a matter of personal choice. When placed alongside the institutional ineffectiveness of FA complaints procedures, this has left too much slippage room for racism to sneak out of the room, unchallenged.
So, let’s return to Omar: a black player that is affected by racism, week-in, week-out: ‘It’s shocking mate, from the whole top to bottom, it’s racist. It’s everywhere.’ From the point of view of Omar, who suffers the consequences of racism every week in grassroots football, the FA give the impression of being:
… up in arms about foreigners being racist, but they don’t care about racism here. Racism is not a priority for them, unless it’s a big high-profile case like Raheem Sterling. Look at the England footballers in Montenegro. You could hear it on the TV. Look at UEFA, a massive football organisation, and what have they done? They’ve charged them 20,000 Euros. What’s that going to do?
What is required is a democratisation of football governance so that it is genuinely influenced from the bottom-up by black and other marginal voices, like Omar. The need is urgent. As it stands, voices such as Omar’s are silenced and, as such, they have become resigned to believing that, ‘The system’s broken. I’ve known about the system for years and, you know what, I just crack on with it now. I’m not going to let racist issues get rid of something I love doing.’
Omar is effectively repeating the words of Frantz Fanon, who once said that, ‘However painful it might be for me to accept this conclusion, I am obliged to state it: for the black man, there is only one destiny, and it is white.’ This is the current state of play in football and it is not good enough. It’s time to listen to Omar.