Racism in football. By now we are almost trained to expect it. Within the past year, we have seen it at all levels of play. Examples include the England national team being abused by the Bulgarian fans, the Haringey Borough player Valery Douglas Pajetat being berated by Yeovil fans, and even player on player cases, as Leeds goalkeeper Kiko Casilla used slurs directed at opponent Jonathan Leko a few weeks ago.
Each time it occurs, there is an outcry on the internet and in the papers – “Why is this being allowed to continue?!” “Disgusting!” “Someone needs to step in!” Which, of course is all true, but what change does it help create?
The Sports Gazette spoke with ex Arsenal and Liverpool midfielder Michael Thomas about a number of things, including his career and the current Arsenal side’s woes. But our conversation soon turned to the hostility that black players faced in his day.
Thomas is well known for his historic goal that won Arsenal a First Division title over Liverpool in the dying seconds of the 1988/89 season. But that didn’t stop opposing fans from slinging abuse. It was very much a part of the football terrace culture of the 80’s.
“It’s quite strange, because obviously in my time, I experienced that when I was playing. And it was ferocious back then, but as a player we had to take it and it didn’t really bother us, it made us mentally strong to play against teams like that,” said Thomas.
“Walking out on the pitch, getting called a n*****, black this, black that, it was everything, you got it even from old ladies, and kids, it was strong. At first it made you want to punch someone, but then you think oh, what’s the point in doing that right now. The best way to get one over them is to beat their team.”
Firstly, it is pretty disturbing that this is the mindset that a black player had to adopt during that era. On the other side of the coin, it shows that there has obviously been progress since that time. But it doesn’t mean that the black players of today’s game don’t feel equally isolated or dispirited by the abuse that they hear, even if it’s not as intense as those bygone days.
So where do we go from here? Stronger stances from the FA and other footballing organisations? More stories from the national newspapers condemning the abuse?
Well, what is the makeup of these institutions?
A year ago, Raheem Sterling made comments criticising the media for fueling the racism on the pitch through differences of portrayals of black versus white players.
If you look at the makeup of the media outlets, and particularly the sports media in the UK, it is a white dominated industry.
In a response to Sterling’s statement, the BBC did a little soul searching. Current talkSPORT host Hugh Woozencroft, who was at the time the BBC News only black sports presenter, wrote an article for the BBC website in December of 2018, critiquing the lack of diversity at BBC Sport.
The facts he laid out were pretty clear, and I will quote some of them from his article:
–In over 50 years of Match of The Day, there has never been a black host.
–If you listen to ‘5 Live Sport’ on Radio 5 live, you will only hear one hour of around 27 per week hosted by a solo BAME (Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic) host. (Three, including two former Premier League footballers, are co-hosts)
–None of the domestic sport correspondents for BBC News are black.
–None of the individual sports correspondents (cricket, football, athletics, etc) within BBC Sport are black.
–None of the staff writers on the BBC Sport website are black.
I spoke with Woozencroft about his piece, the landscape of diversity in the sports media, and racism in sport. In regards to the BBC and the article, he made sure to thank the BBC for publishing it and opening itself up for criticism, the first step to creating real change.
“I can give thanks to the BBC for being open about it and wanting to be completely impartial. The BBC [being a public broadcaster] has a bigger responsibility than all of those other companies, if you want other companies to be open about it [diversity statistics] in particular, you need to be open about it yourself.”
Many other broadcasters across the UK, (I’m looking at you Sky, ITV, BT) haven’t made statistics on their staff’s diversity public. But it doesn’t take much more than a bit of mediocre internet research to see that the diversity of the sports media in the UK isn’t where it needs to be.
And if we want to see changes to the racism on the pitch, modifications need to be made to the newsrooms that cover the sport off it. Obviously it is a process that can’t happen overnight, people that are good at their jobs won’t be replaced just to fix the immediateness of a problem.
The real issue with the lack of diversity in the media and also racism in football as a whole, is that it is institutionalized, engrained at every level. So back to the big question, how do we make a change?
According to Woozencroft, it’s up to everyone, especially white people, to stop shying away from the conversation, “It’s up to the media to go after you, for people at home to start asking questions.”
“I look at my colleagues at the BBC that worked years before I started. and I’m like, Well, that was in the year 1999, What were you doing then? What were you saying then? What were you doing to change this? And these people are like, ‘Well, no, that wasn’t the way things worked then’.”
He makes a point. Even I, who is admittedly whiter than a slice of wonder bread, am guilty of being silent too often. It is important for us in society that haven’t experienced discrimination to do better. But just accepting the need for white people to speak up isn’t going to create changes overnight. Only filling entry level positions with BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people won’t get it done either.
“A lot of companies, not just the BBC, have loads of new diversity schemes and initiatives. The issue with them is that they’re aimed at younger people, and what you end up doing is populating the least important jobs, the lowest paid jobs in your company, with BAME people. And that’s where you increase your BAME statistics.”
“You get loads of young kids really eager, keen for a job and pay them 18 grand a year. You bring in a dozen of them. And suddenly, you’ve got a huge boost in your BAME numbers, but it’s right at the bottom of your organisation.”
The real editorial decision making, the decisions that will affect the headlines that inspired Sterling’s criticism, won’t be changed if media outlets continue in this way.
It is a process that will take time, and it can’t just be a sports media change, it has to be a societal change.
Both Woozencroft and Thomas cited the UK educational system as a major contributor to the problem.
“Our views on the world have been largely molded by our education. And all of our education has been quite positive, in terms of what Britain is, and what it was. The Empire being a very good thing, something that made us friends with everyone in the world rather than having a negative, colonial, and murderous past,” said Woozencroft.
Society doesn’t shift overnight. But if we want to kick racism out of football, a change has to be made. With so many eyes and ears tuned into the sports media, this is naturally a good place to start. People of all races should be represented. The language of subtle institutionalized racism must stop. Editorial decisions can’t be made by a team of just white people.
Society will come around, even if at a slower pace than we would like. After all, the civil rights movement started in the United States back in the 1950’s, and they are still having those conversations. But does the sports media want to be ahead of the curve? That is the question.
I will finish with an anecdote from Michael Thomas, of an early memory attending a Chelsea match as a young boy.
“I was talking to a friend the other day, because I went to watch Chelsea versus Crystal Palace, and it brought back memories of me as a nine or ten year old going to the games at Chelsea. I remember seeing a lot of national front people, skinheads, I was only a little boy.”
“It’s weird now, it brought me right back to that Fulham Broadway station. I saw it [the racism], but being a little boy I didn’t think much of it, being amongst it as a little boy in the shed end, getting called names. The crowds weren’t diverse in my day.”
We’ve made strides as a society and as a footballing culture since these days. But is it enough?