Tag Archives: Racism in football

WHITES ONLY? Events in football and in the film industry shake our complacency

Q: What have the Paris Métro and the Oscar nomination list in common?

A: They’re for whites only. At least, it seemed that way this week. Chelsea fans forcibly prevented a black passenger from getting on the underground train as the proudly proclaimed they were racists after last Tuesday’s game in Paris (video above). And in the altogether more civilized environs of Hollywood, the Oscar ceremonies disregarded black artists, directors and production personnel, opting for all-white nominees. This surprised many considering the strong reviews for the movie Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay (pictured below with actors David Oyelowo, right, and Common). The snub wasn’t the result of some conspiracy to exclude African Americans. 12 Years a Slave, a film by a black director about black history, won best picture last year. But the absence of black people from this year’s awards, coming so soon after a series of incidents in the US in which young black people have been hurt or killed, seems to magnify how the so-called “race issue” did not disappear with the election of President Obama and the coming of the “colour blind society.”

Common, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo

Q: I guess, in the same way, we have been lulled into assuming the same “race issue” has gone from football. Some people can remember the late 1970s and 1980s, when black players first appeared in British football. In those days, the players were barracked and racially abused and it was commonplace to see far right political movements recruiting outside football stadiums. The kind of incident we saw in Paris could be seen on the streets of Britain all the time, some of the perpetrators being skinheads. Did it go, then come back, or has it never really been far away?

A: Racism has not been a constant presence in British football. It certainly declined in the early 1990s with the rise of the Premier League and the great black players who became stars of the game. The sport became glamorous and, for a long period, it did look like its racist history was just that — history. But, since 2011, there has been a constant stream of incidents, some on the field, some among the fans, and many in social media, that have reminded us that racism has been lurking not far beneath the surface. Now it appears it has returned to visibility.

Q: It almost defies rational explanation, doesn’t it?

A: Almost. But consider this: football and Hollywood are, in their own, different ways, cultural institutions, started by white men (not women) and intended, largely, for other whites. Even in the early days of Hollywood, there were few opportunities for black actors and audiences were typically white. Today the academy that awards the Oscars has been around 93 percent white, 76 percent male and an average of 63 years old. Football is a little older than Hollywood, emerging in the 1860s in England (at least in the way we understand the sport), while Hollywood’s film industry emerged in the early decades of the 20th century. Again, the people who played the game and those who watched were almost exclusively white. There is still what we might call a white establishment in football: it is governed mainly by white men. So we shouldn’t be misled by the number of black players we see in the modern game. The hierarchy of football is dominated by whites. You only have to remind yourself about the recent debate over the scarcity of black managers and the debate over the Rooney Rule to understand how black people in football are meant to be strictly players and not in positions of authority.

Q: So has there been no progress?

A: Oh yes, plenty. But you have to bear in mind that slavery was around in the 1600s and the kind of beliefs and attitudes we associate with racism have been forming, not just for a few decades, but for centuries. I think it’s foolish to think racism is a single mindset that has been frozen in time: compare the situation now with how it was in the UK in the 1980s, for example. The point is that racist ideas are like fingerprints: even though we sometimes can’t see them with the naked eye, their impressions or marks are still there and, under certain conditions, they become visible. Obviously, they were in evidence in Paris. Less so in Hollywood, but perhaps the absence of black people from the Oscars is just as powerful a reminder that we shouldn’t be complacent about racism: it needs to be opposed in its every manifestation.

Q: How should we deal with racism in sport? A: Learn from the NBA

Q: So what’s all the fuss about with the National Basketball Association and this guy Don Sterling?
A: Sterling is the owner of the NBA club Los Angeles Clippers. He has a supermodel girlfriend (pictured with him above), who apparently invited African American friends to games. Sterling, it seems, told her not to bring them. The league got to hear about this and took a very dim view.
Q: I guess the NBA punished him, eh?
A: And how! The league hit him with a $2.5 million (about £1.5m) fine and banned him for life. So he can’t go near his own club now. The NBA also says he must sell the Clippers.
Q: What’s the club worth?
A: $575 million, according to Forbes magazine.
Q: Wow! Can the NBA actually force him to sell?
A: This remains to be seen. Remember: this is the land of the free and home of the brave and private property is at the heart of the American ethos. Sterling’s lawyers will be preparing to challenge the NBA’s decision. He can afford the fine, but he’ll almost certainly want to keep his club. There is bound to be a long legal struggle ahead.
Q: Does the punishment fit the crime?
A: It’s certainly an extremely harsh punishment, unparalleled in sport history. His comments are not directly abusive, but they are racist by inference. Compared to some of the incidents we’ve seen in football, they are relatively mild. Don’t get me wrong: you can extrapolate the racism from his remarks, but in Europe players and fans openly mouth racist language and use Twitter to convey racist epithets. The nearest case to this one was in 2007 when Spain’s head coach Luis Aragonés was caught on camera referring to the then Arsenal striker Thierry Henry as “that black shit.”
Q: And how did Uefa, football’s European governing organization, react?
A: A £2,000 fine, which Aragonés later successfully appealed.
Q: But that was seven years ago. Uefa and football’s world governing federation Fifa are tougher on racism now, right?
A: Last October, Uefa ordered the partial closure of CSKA Moscow’s stadium for one game following racist chanting directed at Manchester City’s Yaya Toure. Only last week, Uefa said it wasn’t able to take action against a fan who threw a banana at Barcelona player Dani Alves because it was up to the Spanish federation to act.
Q: This sounds almost unbelievably soft in comparison with the NBA approach.
A: It is. You have to remember: nearly 77% of the National Basketball Association’s players are African American. The league is embarrassed because only one club has an African American owner.
Q: That would be Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, right?
A: Correct. Nearly half the coaches in the league are black, but the NBA would like more ownership profile to look a bit more like the player profile. You also have to think that a lot of basketball fans are black. So the NBA is understandably sensitive about any hint of racism, especially at the top.
Q: Finally, do you think football has anything to learn from this?

A: Racism has been in football since the late 1970s and the sport has never successfully managed to rid itself of what has become its most bedevilling problem. No other sport has struggled with racism in the same way as the so-called beautiful game — which is the most multicultural sport in history, of course. The NBA’s approach seems to be this: stamp down hard on the first evidence of racism in the most dramatic, emphatic way it legally can, and this will send out a clear message. Football has been lily-livered and the message it’s been sending out is: “racism is unpleasant, but we have other priorities; so we’ll dole out minor fines or close parts of stadiums and hope this will suffice.” It won’t. I’m not saying it should take clubs away from owners, but a fine of £1.5m for a first offence and perhaps suspension from European competition for a few years might have the required effect.