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.