Football, Racism, 40 Acres and the Regulation Mule

Last evening, there was a captivating debate on ACLF about the extent of racism in football. Yogi’s joint has this eclectic mix of fascinating characters who occasionally take a spin outside football and indulge in profound discussions about politics, police states, the economy and many other colourful topics.

What struck me about the discussion yesterday was the level of understanding and ignorance in equal measure when it came to the reality of racism in football. It was a discussion triggered by the suggestion by former West Bromwich defender Brendan Batson that affirmative action was needed in

English football to open up opportunities in management for blacks and other ethnic minorities.

So, in the sporting world’s rendition of General William Sherman’s 1865 special field order No. 15, is it time for English football to start handing out the

“40 acres and the regulation mule” to managers of colour?

The redistribution of arable land to freed slaves was an effort to give them a chance to make a living in recognition of the clear disadvantage they already faced. Even as far back , that representation of affirmative action was deemed necessary to try and redress inequalities stemming from generations of slavery, despite its revocation after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

And here we are nearly 145 years later, and the “Rooney Rule” (nothing to do with that other one from Manchester) is seen as the only viable mechanism to break the establishment’s stronghold on the status quo when it comes to the lack of black managers in football.
Racism, like with most other “isms” is an emotive subject on any given day, and one commonly misunderstood characteristic is how racism manifests itself. It doesn’t have to be overt or explicit for it to exist. And in most cases, it is subconscious, subtle and hidden under the surface.

We’ve seen the numerous high profile initiatives and campaigns in football like “kick It Out” that in my opinion, are feeble and toothless PR exercises for the establishment to show that it is doing something. Only this week, the England football team were training with the “Kick it Out” bracelets to show the media and the world that they were sensitive to the racism experienced in Bulgaria during the fixture last week.

I know it’s feeble and spineless because it’s not nearly enough and not gutsy and deep enough to effect any changes. Footballing authorities are more interested in spending time witch-hunting banned managers for misdemeanours like sending signals to the bench from the stands via mobile phone, instead of tackling clear cases of racism.

It was only recently that Sergio Busquets of Barcelona blatantly abused an opponent with explicit racist slurs and FIFA and UEFA concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence. Gil Grisham from CSI would have built a case against Busquets from the TV footage even without leaving his sofa.
But it isn’t just the racism in the stands and terraces, and the racism on the field of play. When it comes to management, officiating, and the board room, the trend continues. It’s shocking that out of the 92 registered association football members, only Chris Hughton at Birmingham and Chris Powell at

Charlton are black.
At the highest level of football, we’ve seen the likes of Paul Ince, Ruud Gullit and Jean Tigana take charge of top football clubs, but is that nearly enough?
I don’t buy the argument that there aren’t enough black or minority professionals capable of doing the job at the highest levels. The fact that not many are even pursuing the opportunities in management is symptomatic of the fact that they are not likely to get the chance to manage at a high level, even if they were extremely competent and capable.

Nobody’s advocating for not giving the best man or woman the job. In an ideal world, the best candidate triumphs. But idealism and reality are two parallel universes. The reality is that the footballing establishment still live in the stone age and represent values and principles that are out of step with the modern world.

There’s a lot of noises about change, and a lot of noises about inclusion and diversity. They say “but, can’t you see how colourful the Premier league and the football leagues are? We have black, Asian and Hispanic players happily plying their trade alongside white folks”.
The blunt truth is that despite the player diversity numbers, racism is still alive. It’s taken a long time to get to where we are, but there are still tangible cases of racism towards players. My sense is that it got to a tipping point where it was impossible to ignore the talents of exceptional black players and that’s the reason barriers started breaking.

Sweden in the summer of 1958 was probably not prepared for a black 17 year old Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pele), but history will suggest that the world will never forget him. Pele spectacularly announced himself on the world stage despite the “hostile” conditions towards black players.
Much more work has to be done in other areas of football, whether in management and coaching, or in the board room. As much as the establishment might want to rationalize or justify what is happening or what initiatives have been put in place, not nearly enough is being done.

If we need to hand over footballing’s equivalent of 40 acres and a mule, then it needs to happen. It’s criminal that opportunities for minority professionals in a game of such a high percentage of minority players is almost non-existent.
This isn’t about handing over jobs to disadvantaged folks for the sake of political correctness. It’s about recognizing that we’re not even starting from a level playing field and we have to do something drastic about it. It’s about getting them to the table. Those who are good enough can take care of themselves from there.

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Friday, September 9th, 2011 Analysis, Football, News, Premier League

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