I’ve just watched the BBC3 show Is Football Racist. I recommend it… it will be on iPlayer until 29th July here (). Clarke Carlisle does a good job of exploring the issues – it’s not just about John Terry or Twitter, but has a bit of history and also asks about the unrepresentative nature of football crowds and club managers and the games hierarchy. Notable speakers included Jermaine Jenas, who was very sensible by saying that a lot has been done to tackle racism, but there’s more to do (I also found out about the charity in Nottingham he has set up), Brendan Batson saying similar, and a piece with the Punjabi Wolves (http://www.punjabiwolves.com/). I was a little sad to be reminded that David Baddiel is a Chelsea fan: I continue to hope he's a gooner, but never mind.
However, it was only really Ava Vidal who mentioned one of the important but usually ignored facts about racism in a football context, that racism is present in wider society too. Now this truism should guide us to the questions we ask and how we ask them. Instead of the question ‘Is football racist?’ – some tweeters noted that football can’t be racist, but it’s fans, management, governing bodies, other institutions and so on – we should ask a set of questions which may help us learn how to make the world a better place.
My questions would start with: ‘Is the ecosystem of football any more or less racist than other sports, or even other comparable institutions?’ or ‘… more or less racist than the society around it?’ These are important questions for two reasons, one addressing knowledge of racism and another addressing how that knowledge is presented. One thing that really annoys me about the Racism in Football narrative is that it suggests that football has a problem that doesn’t appear elsewhere. Starting from this narrative means people don’t research or discuss racism elsewhere: perhaps rugby or swimming is more racist than football and we don’t know because no-one has bothered to ask the question. And if this is invisible, then the fact that we talk of racism in football but not elsewhere perpetuates the idea that football is more racist than other sports. For what it’s worth I think that racism in football is probably less of a problem than in wider society (see below).
While the answer to ‘Is Football Racist?’ is yes, if it is less racist than society more widely we should say that this is a good thing. This doesn’t mean resting on our laurels, for we can still say, as Jenas did, that racism is still a problem. However, if we’re in the business of comparisons we can talk about them, and this has real effects. Take the issue of BME fans or managers. If we use the simple construction ‘football is racist’, I can understand why BME fans might be put off going to games. But what if it turns out that the risk of racism is lower in a crowd of 30,000 football fans than being in the company of 30,000 similar people for 90 minutes outside the context of football. That, I hope, would be an encouragement. Similarly, the number of black managers is low, but it may also be a better result than the corporate world. In 2005, only 27 of 1130 FTSE100 boardroom posts were held by BME people, and 21 of those were based elsewhere – presumably the India Director or whatever – so leaving 6. I imagine that these companies don’t have as high a percentage of BME employees as football, but it still remains that if you’re a black retiring footballer and wanting to climb a career ladder, you’d may be better staying put than joining the corporate world. That said, I don’t know of any black board members in football either!
Other important questions, sort of raised but not fully explored in the programme, would focus on the efficacy of the campaigns against racism in football and elsewhere. Indeed, another thing to say to BME fans would be that racism in football is not as bad as it was in the 70s and 80s: it was pointed out (can’t remember who by) that people still think of the far-right and hooligans – ‘still tarred with that’ – and so are put off going. However, this has changed, and I believe that the Kick It Out and Show Racism the Red Card campaigns have helped this to happen: but we need BME fans to know that they can go to the game without fear. Society is also less racist than it was then – young people are more likely to be comfortable with diversity, and the older generations are dying off – and we should also be asking ourselves how these campaigns have had an impact on wider society.
My own theory is that football is leading the way in dealing with racism, has moved with society but probably gone further due to the campaigns and the visibility of BME footballers, and that this visibility will have helped make Britain as a whole less racist. That doesn’t mean that all is rosy, though, and like Jenas said, we’ll never be completely free of racism, but neither should we say that football is the source of racism or that it’s more problematic than everything else. This then is the dilemma: all the work to tackle racism in football, including the prosecutions of Terry and the Muamba tweeter, needs to be done and continued, but raising the issue also gives society the impression that football is racist.
On Sunday I came across references to an academic/think tank paper that generated headlines like ‘Jail DOES reduce crime’ (The Sun) and ‘Longer prison terms really do cut crime, study shows’ (The Guardian). The research paper was published on Monday, and so unlike some social research stories in the media, we can actually go back to the original paper and see whether the politicised claims made bear any relation to the actual research.
However, my first thought was ‘so what?’ It would be astonishing if longer prison terms didn’t cut crime: after all, the more people are in prison at any one time, the fewer are out with the opportunity to commit crime. This would be true whether or not the people inside have been convicted of crime, and we also don’t know which prisoners would ‘go straight’ or not. Keeping people in prison for longer reduces crime, but keeping specific people inside may have the same effect. That’s also true when thinking about any deterrent effect: longer sentences might deter some but not others.
Indeed, although this story is used to say Ken Clarke is wrong, this would only really be the case if he’d argues that increasing sentences (or policing, for that matter) didn’t reduce crime. What he actually said was that increasing sentences has less impact on crime than the economy. So when the Guardian says that the research disagrees with Clarke, they put it thus:
‘The findings tend to support the thrust of policies followed by the last Labour government, which increased funding to the police and concentrated on the roughly 100,000 persistent offenders responsible for a high proportion of crime. This approach increased the prison population, but it also led to reductions in overall levels of crime. By contrast, the current justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, often questions the relationship between criminal justice policy and the level of crime and suggests that economic factors may be just as, if not more, important.’ (The Guardian)
Amazingly, the research that Civitas commissioned (Bandyopadhyay, 2012) actually agrees with Clarke. For three of the four crimes studied, real earnings have a greater effect than sentencing or detection by police.
Furthermore, as usual in academic papers, there are lots of caveats that don’t end up in the newspaper versions. These include:
‘For some convicted robbers, a longer sentence acts as additional incapacitation and a potential deterrence from future crime. For others, being incarcerated for longer tends to reinforce, rather than reduce, criminal behaviour. For those offenders, an alternative disposal to custody might be more appropriate for reducing crime. In other words, an across-the-board increase in sentence length will not be optimal.’
‘… prison can have very different effects on different offenders. This suggests that an optimal policy will target repeat and serious offenders for long sentences while using alternatives to custody for other offenders.’
This is hardly the total endorsement of increasing sentences that the papers seem to have seen in or repeated from the Civitas press releases.
At this point, though, I’d like to take the author of the original paper to task. He’s an economist, but strangely didn’t think about the costs of any increase in policing or sentences for any given effect. And one of the most important costs is implicit in these caveats. We may know that we can decrease the number of burglaries by increasing sentences, but we don’t know whose sentences to increase. A deterrent effect on criminals-to-be might work with a couple of high profile long sentences, or publication of higher averages. The deterrent or incapacitation of prisoners due to be released may be overkill: half of the prisoners kept inside might not have reoffended anyway but we don’t know which. Like any punishment, one cost to society is the punishment of people we wouldn't want to punish - the false positives - and here there may be needless harm done to a person because we didn't know that they were in the 'unlikely to re-offend' category.
But the most glaring omission is the financial cost, surely of interest to an economist. Is any proposal worth it for the reduction in crime? Using the figures in his paper we find that increasing burglary sentences by a third would reduce burglaries by an estimated 21,000. But this is from 963,700, a huge number… your chances of being burgled will fall by a couple of percent. And the cost to society? I think there are about 5000 burglars in prison at any one time, so they’d do an extra 25000 months of prison time, a cost of about £83million, not including the cost of new prisons. So each burglary saved would cost the taxpayer £4000. Is it worth it, given that the average burglary claim is £1400?
Surely the question to ask is whether this £83million is money well spent. We could reduce burglary by 21,000 or employ 4,000 nurses. Indeed, the existence of these 4,000 nurses might increase health which might then reduce crime, who knows. Everything has costs, there are no magic bullets, and governments should choose policies on the basis of costs as well as benefits. At the same time, it would be helpful if newspapers didn’t reduce everything to the binaries of either it works or doesn’t, it’s caused by this or it isn’t: real life is complex, with multiple causes, multiple and unseen effects.