To Tackle Racism in Football Don’t Just Look At Fans
The recent 24-hour social media boycott by football stars Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose and Troy Deeney over racism in our national game has once again put abuse from fans in the spotlight. But while there is more to do in combating hate from the stands, players were also demanding equality with more black club managers and at boardroom level. A third of footballers in England’s four professional leagues are black, yet only six per cent of managers are. At this rate, as CLASS analysis shows, we are unlikely to see a black England manager any time soon. Even the weakest positive action measure, the Rooney Rule, which involves ensuring a BME candidate is interviewed, has so far failed to make any real difference in the three leagues below the Premiership.
The media focus on fan racism, while ignoring racial disparities in how rich club chairmen pick which manager sits in the dugout, reflects an historical pattern of shaming the individual rather than looking at institutional discrimination, and blaming working class supporters at the exclusion of middle-class decision-makers. Racial abuse can cause emotional damage because it cuts into feelings of belonging and identity, but systemic barriers at work results in BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) and faith communities being denied jobs, opportunities and promotions that they would otherwise get, and condemning a disproportionately high number of BME people to a life of poverty and homelessness.
It is often said that racism in football is a ‘reflection of society’. At the time John Barnes famously back-heeled a banana skin off the pitch, over three decades ago, whole stadiums used to rock with monkey chants. Such appalling abuse still occurs in regions like the Balkans, but the fact that it has been reduced to much smaller numbers of unrepentant racists reflects the growth of the multi-ethnic working class. The Far Right Lads Alliance, who use football as a tool to recruit and radicalise, promote the ‘new racism’ of Islamophobia and wider fear of new immigration instead of the anti-black and anti-Asian rhetoric of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Their concoction of hate is being challenged by an alliance of anti-racists and trade unions, but what is also a reflection of society is the ‘prejudice plus power’ of those who run the sport, and society in general. And while all-white factory floors have disappeared as the working classes have largely embraced diversity, all-white boardrooms haven’t followed suit.
In the dark days when hooliganism was rife, it was the wealthy elite who treated white working-class fans like animals, herding them and locking them behind iron spikes, while those fans in turn abused black players. The treatment of fans was most starkly shown in the disregard for life that contributed to the disasters of Hillsborough and Bradford. Today, conditions have improved dramatically, but the divide remains between the (now expensive) cheap seats and the (now astronomical) corporate boxes.
The beautiful game can be seen as a microcosm of the failure of meritocracy in Britain as a whole and emblematic of the way institutional privilege and institutional racism combine to deflect attention onto the working class as being the real problem. Social media boycotts, and mechanisms with too many get-out clauses, like the Rooney Rule, are not enough. Football could be the testing ground for more radical affirmative action like all-BME and socio-economic shortlists for managers, with these shortlists being picked by the Football League and Premier League. Our most popular sport could popularise and normalise such actions, just as all-women shortlists for winnable parliamentary seats has been normalised within the Labour Party. Such ideas could see football leading the way because if they can work in an environment as corporatized, classist and racist as the sport they can succeed anywhere.
Lester Holloway is Communications and Events Officer for CLASS