I’m writing this article as a 30-year-old white man who has never had to deal with racism and doesn’t profess to speak on behalf of those who have. I’m also someone who out of ignorance rather than malice, has enforced racist stereotypes as a naive teenager, and I feel that this honesty is important in the name of progress. Importantly in this context, I’m also someone whose life has been shaped in significant ways by English football.
Black History Month
So, during Black History Month, I decided to return to a theme I’d long wanted to write about, racism in football. Previously it never felt appropriate, or that as a white male, my voice was not one that needed to be heard, but, in today’s climate, I feel it’s important to be an ally, and a vocal one.
Football, mirroring society, has a deep-seated historical problem with racism, and there are times when it appears we’re no further along the path to change than the so-called dark days of the ’70s and ’80s. A Guardian article from earlier this year illustrates the point, reporting that ‘more than 150 football related racist incidents were reported to police last season’ an increase of ‘50% on the year before and double 3 seasons ago’.
In addition, we’ve seen high profile incidents of racism involving the England national team rear their ugly head more than once over recent years, notably the abhorrent treatment of black England players, including debutant Tyrone Mings, in Bulgaria last year.
It’s imperative to look at the aforementioned incidents in the wider geopolitical context, with far-right politics seeing a concerning resurgence across Europe and a US president who fans the flames of hatred and refuses to condemn white supremacists. This seems to have emboldened racism and xenophobia, fuelled further by a toxic European Union debate, and has led to football fans once again becoming the target of far-right figures like Tommy Robinson. Robinson, or Stephen Yaxley-Lennon to use his real name, has expressed support for the likes of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, most recently seen clashing with Black Lives Matter protestors, it’s a worrying union.
Football has seen it all before
Football has been here before, this excellent article from Gary Hartley of The Blizzard talks about the targeting of football fans by the National Front at Leeds United games in the ’80s.
Leeds fans responded to this with Marching Altogether ‘a fanzine with a specifically anti-racist bent’. The publication tackled racism through education and had encouraging results in combatting the rising influence of the NF at Elland Road.
Fans have a major role to play in fighting racism and indeed any kind of bigotry or abuse in football, they have the power to pressure the authorities to do more. The powers that be have often engaged in poorly thought out, ineffectual campaigns, which have no real lasting legacy.
The lack of sufficient punishment for racism has been the biggest indicator of the half-hearted nature of the Football Association’s efforts. Think back to the 8 game ban Luis Suarez received for racially abusing Patrice Evra, a paltry amount.
In a year which has seen an explosion of anti-racist action in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, football across the world needs to ensure that this watershed event is the catalyst for genuine systemic change. Players taking the knee, Black Lives Matter logos on shirts, these symbolic gestures are positive, but in isolation are not enough.
The authorities need to act decisively now to eradicate abuse in football, punishments need to be severe for players and fans found guilty, representation of the BAME community at management and board level needs to increase dramatically to truly represent the sport.
So, I’m calling on all football fans to do their bit, make your voice heard, pressure the authorities, call out racism from the grassroots level upwards, and have those awkward conversations with teammates, fellow supporters and family members. For those unsure where to start, Kick it Out have produced this practical guide.
Now is the time to act.