The topic of racism in football has once again reared its head in England, raising some interesting questions about how far the game has really progressed. Equality and inclusion organisation Kick It Out last week released their discrimination report for the 2016/17 season, pointing towards a rise in reports for the fifth year in a row. More worryingly, this week the inquiry into the FA’s handling of the Eni Aluko/Mark Sampson affair is exposing some uncomfortable home truths about the organisation.
Are the figures only skin deep?
Football in England has come a long since the days of monkey chants and bananas being directed at the likes of Cyril Regis and John Barnes. But it would be foolish to think that racism has disappeared completely from the terraces, and many people of colour will attest to having experienced, or witnessed, racial prejudice in one form or another at a football ground.
The Kick It Out Figures are worthy of further analysis. On the surface, an increase for the fifth season at 16.7% should be real cause for concern. Of the 469 reports, 48% of these were race related – a significant rise from the 77 reported when the information was first collated in 2012. The reports come from almost every level of the game, from grassroots non-league (level four and above) through to the Premier League and internationals.
What is difficult to quantify about these figures is the nature of each offence and people’s readiness to report the incidents. There is no doubt that Kick It Out’s presence has also grown year-on-year and supporters may now feel more comfortable reporting a racist offence than in previous seasons. Interestingly, many of the reports came via the organisations mobile app, which accounted for 38% of race related incidents. This convenience allows people to report any incident promptly, rather than be deterred by filling out forms, or waiting until they can visit a website at home.
What’s in a chant?
While It’s difficult to discern the true meaning of their annual figures, Kick It Out have also been involved in the recent Romelu Lukaku chant controversy. They were pressurising Manchester United to ban any fan caught singing the song and the striker himself has asked fans to “move on”. The club began efforts with police to spot the supporters at fault. Yet the fans response was to dig their heels in and sing the chant again during their next game away to Southampton.
No doubt some fans would defend this chant as mere “harmless banter”. Singing about the size of a black man’s genitalia is something of a compliment, surely? The racial stereotype is clear, a fact which those involved in singing the song know only too well. That this level of casual racism could occur so publicly amongst a set of fans supporting one of the world’s biggest football clubs is deeply worrying.
The shame of the FA
The FA also asked Manchester United to ‘address’ the Lukaku chant but at the moment the organisation has a few questions of its own to answer. The top brass are currently under the spotlight for the way they have mishandled the Drew Spence and Eniola Aluko situation, and now the truth is starting to emerge, it serves as a damning indictment of the FA. Not only did they originally dismiss accusations of racism out of hand, but allegedly Aluko was asked to write a statement stating that the FA was not institutionally racist. If true, the very fact that she was asked to do so suggests an organisation unsure of its own position on racial matters.
Like many leading organisations in western society, the FA board is comprised of middle-age white men. A further 12 people make-up the FA senior management team. Again, there are no people of colour in any of these positions. You are left to wonder just how firmly the FA believe in non-discrimination and racial equality.
Greg Clarke and Martin Glenn are under extreme pressure as a result of the enquiry but whether they keep their jobs is irrelevant. It’s about what is done in the aftermath of this disgrace, the changes made to ensure that racial complaints are handled fairly for both parties involved, and that the FA don’t simply rely on PR apologies before sweeping it back under the rug.
Abuse directed at players
Reports of abuse against players of colour also continue to rear their head. Only this week Roma have been charged by UEFA after their fans aimed monkey chants at Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger during their 3-3 draw. Liverpool youngster Bobby Adekanye faced similar during last month’s UEFA Youth League game against Spartak Moscow. We all know that there is a huge problem in Russia and the World Cup next year could prove to be an uncomfortable experience for players and fans alike.
But before we get too smug and begin to lecture other countries, let’s not forget anti-Semitic chants can still be heard in the Premier League and only two years ago Chelsea fans proudly chanted in Paris: “We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it.” It could be said these are small, one-off incidents. It could also be suggested that these are symptomatic of a much larger, hidden problem.
So where does this leave us? Mostly as fans of a sport that remains reflective of society as a whole. Thankfully, enough pressure has been created over the past few decades to remove most public incidents of overt racism. The subtleties of the issue have not disappeared as Mark Sampson illustrated all too well, and as many people of colour have experienced in their personal lives.
We all have a part to play in ensuring that attitudes are changed for the better, no matter the colour of our skin. The more we do that, the more likely it is that we can focus purely on the game of football, rather than these constant reminders of our uglier traits.