Matty Hayward – @mattyhayward96
It’s two weeks since we first saw Villa and Sheffield United players with “Black Lives Matter” on their backs and taking a knee before kick-off. The image of all the players, staff and officials kneeling in unison in support of an anti-racist cause was powerful. A fortnight on, players continue to take this stance, but the slogan has moved – it’s now a small circle either below their squad number or on the arm.
This won’t last. There will understandably come a time where it all stops, where matches will kick off as normal, where logos for smartphone games return to players’ arms, where TV pundits will wear different badges for different causes on their lapels. And when all the performative stuff dies down, what will football actually have achieved with regards to anti-racism? Does football even have a problem with racism at all?
That second question is much easier to answer: yes, it does. Here’s a list of racist incidents in football since England players were racially abused in Bulgaria last October:
- Man United eject a fan in a match against Liverpool over allegations of racist abuse
- Shaktar Donetsk player, Taison, sent off and banned for one match after reacting to alleged racist abuse during his side’s home win over Dynamo Kiev
- Everton investigate incidents of alleged racism during their game against Spurs
- Spurs launch investigation after Antonio Rüdiger reported being targeted by monkey chants
- Corriere dello Sport run a bizarre front page, titled “Black Friday” with images of Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling ahead of the game between Inter and Roma
- Serie A come under fire for using a painting of three monkeys as part of a campaign to stamp out racism
- A video circulates appearing to show a supporter making monkey gestures at Fred during the Manchester Derby
- Two men are arrested on Boxing Day after alleged racist chanting at Peterborough V Doncaster
- BBC Radio Derby sever ties with Craig Ramage after his claim that Derby’s “young black lads need pulling down a peg or two”
- Port Vale’s Tom Pope charged by the FA after posting a tweet linking the Rothschilds to “every bank on the planet” – a common antisemitic trope
- Porto forward, Moussa Marega, walks off after being subjected to racist abuse by Guimaraes. The offending club were fined 714 euros.
This list covers just over four months of football and is in no way complete. Just last week, a banner flew over the Etihad with the slogan “White Lives Matter Burnley.”
This May, ex-Gull Jean-Yves Koue Niate gave an interview to French website God Save The Foot. It’s in French, but the Google Translation works pretty well. He talks at length about the experience of a black foreigner in English football: “there is a bit of racism […] As soon as there is not a good result, it is the foreigners on whom the fault is blamed.”
At Yeovil last Boxing Day, Kalvin Kalala went down injured and hobbled off in front of the Torquay fans. He was very clearly in pain – he let out an audible yelp as he went down. Yet some Torquay fans decided to hurl abuse at him (and Kai Hepworth, the physio, also BAME). None of the abuse (that I heard) was of an explicitly racist nature, but throughout the game some referred to Kalala’s “laziness”, him “not being arsed” and “milking it”. That injury kept him out for almost a month.
I felt deeply uncomfortable in that crowd, with those levels of anger, but I couldn’t work out why. Niate’s comments surely lend themselves to an explanation. I wonder if Ben Whitfield, Asa Hall or Jake Andrews would have received similar abuse for leaving the field with an injury?
That’s the issue here. Racism isn’t just about the instances listed from world football. It’s not just about monkey chants and using the N-word. It’s not just the abhorrent DMs that Ian Wright receives and tweets about. It’s not always explicit.
Humans are conditioned by the society in which they grow up. As a result, they will develop prejudices and biases from their environment. Many of these will be unconscious. I believe that the fans giving Kalala abuse that day weren’t thinking “He’s black, I better abuse him because white people are superior”, but they may have held prejudiced stereotypes in their head – unconscious or otherwise – about black people being lazy.
When (white) people are accused of racial bias, racial stereotyping, racism, the first response is often to think that they’re being accused of throwing around slurs and believing in their racial superiority. Racism is rarely so overt. We are all guilty of bias, and it is our responsibility to actively recognise it, then question and educate ourselves and others about it in an attempt to eradicate it, because unconscious bias is harmful too. We would all benefit from recognising that it is part of our nature to hold prejudices – and I make no mistake, it’s difficult to acknwoledge something so ingrained – because then we can work on eradicating them.
This is no clearer than in Sachin Nakrani’s Guardian article this week about bias in commentary. RunRepeat, a Danish research firm, found that commentators are 6.59 times more likely to comment on a player’s “power” if he has dark skin, and 63% of criticism of players’ (lack of) intelligence is aimed at those with darker skin.
Clive Tyldesley addressed this, saying that the findings highlighted “inaccurate [and] irresponsible” stereotypes and that “too much sports commentary is lazy and thoughtless.” Of course, as Jason Lee points out in the Nakrani article, the consequence of the repetition of these stereotypes is that black players have an unfair advantage in the coaching and punditry industries compared to those who are referred to as “intelligent” and “industrious” throughout their careers. Indeed, research suggests that white players get a much better chance in management than their black counterparts (as a sidenote, I would encourage everyone to read the linked article by Jonathan Liew – it’s excellent).
Kneeling, badges, hashtags and social media “blackouts” are all utterly meaningless without action. They don’t really change attitudes. They’re as useful as Boris Johnson clapping for workers that his party has spent a decade attacking. So, what action is needed? Well, I don’t know – I’m just some white lad with no qualifications in the area. It’s a society-wide problem, but that is not to say that football can’t make a difference.
Football – it’s clubs, administrators, players – has a huge potential for promoting equality. For a start, the governing bodies can punish offending clubs and nations by issuing more than a puny fine. Aiming to interview a quota of BAME people for each job would help with the problem in management, as would an active attempt to combat biases portrayed in commentary.
But we fans have to speak and act too, however uncomfortable that may make us feel. Micro-changes add up. Having these conversations over the pre-match pint, the dinner table, in groupchats, on the terraces. These are productive ways we can make change.
We need to stop reading stuff written by people like me, who don’t suffer from overt, structural, unconscious or any other types of racism and can’t adequately articulate these arguments. Instead, read and listen to the experts. The Guardian Football Weekly “racism special” podcasts are a good place to start. Read and listen to (and learn from) Gary Younge, Musa Okwonga, Ash Sarkar, Troy Townsend, Diane Abbott, Jordan Jarrett Bryan, Raheem Sterling, David Lammy, Ian Wright, Afua Hirsch, Akala, Stormzy, Reni Eddo-Lodge among many other progressive BAME voices. Something as simple as following those names on Twitter will open you up to a whole new world of anti-racism content. They are the experts in this stuff, and their striving for equality is not – in any sense – a threat to white people’s rights or lives.
When they – we – say Black Lives Matter, we don’t mean white lives don’t, we mean there’s work to be done.