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Racism in football and the role of black footballers

"Ni**ers with Attitude?....that's what it stands for? I thought that applied to all of them!" - and so the conversation continued between the only two people in the room other than myself.

I'd arrived at the apprentice digs early that Sunday evening to be exposed to that language and those sentiments from my potential teammates.

As a newly arrived trialist at the club, what was I to do? I was there to impress, blend in and be offered that elusive apprenticeship. Not to rock the boat, come across as disruptive, or having a chip on my shoulder… and therein lies the start of the problem.

Football is essentially a fit-in culture. From the time young boys join professional clubs, to the day they put pen to paper on their first contract, football ability aside, it's about being liked, easy to deal with and fitting in.

For black players or players from a different culture this can present problems around when to stand-up against what you think is wrong, even though many may class some comments as banter, and when to keep your head down and just get on with it.

Racism in football, as in society, is longstanding, deep rooted and comes in various guises. Campaign, after high profile campaign, seeks to highlight a zero tolerance approach.

Racism is still alive and well

They are generally geared towards the fans and supporters and reinforced by the players on the pitch. However, despite this racism is still alive and well whether it's from the terraces of Europe, the boardrooms of the clubs, the training ground dressing room, or the pitch itself.

The comments of FIFA Chief Sepp Blatter have been well documented in recent months and rightly so. Add to this, the high profile incidents involving England and Chelsea captain John Terry and the allegations made by Manchester United's Patrice Evra against Luis Suarez for which the latter has now been charged by the FA.

A charge that then prompted the well respected Brighton manager Gus Poyet to describe Evra's actions as 'crying like a baby', then continuing to present a laughable explanation as to what racism is, show how these issues present themselves and their understanding lurches from the enlightened to the ridiculous.

In Europe, more sugar coated 'fines' from UEFA to countries who's fans and thinking still equate black players with some sort of primate and take great pleasure in highlighting this whenever the said players touch the ball.

Bulgaria's German coach Lothar Matthaus, who has since been sacked, was so embarrassed by the fans' behaviour that he publicly apologised after the match.

Incidents of racist and discriminatory behaviour

Earlier this year, Never Again published a report called "Hateful" which documented the number of racist incidents in Poland and Ukraine. It detailed 195 individual incidents of racist and discriminatory behaviour in an 18-month period from September 2009 to March 2011.

I look forward with trepidation to England's final group game against the Ukraine at Euro 2012.

From the boardroom the likeable and media friendly Dave Whelan. The Wigan Athletic Chairman's comments on 'black players being a little bit out of order' for complaining about racism on the pitch, were largely ignored by the media compared to the hue and cry over Blatter's comments.

Does Whelan give a glimpse into the thinking of a world where representation by black and minority ethnic men and women is sparse? Could this be a reason why, in a sport where black players excel, their transition into management is a limited one?

These issues demonstrate some of the problems and their complexities. Problems that continue surface despite the games best efforts to make then disappear. Given their reoccurring nature, and failed responses, one of the questions that has long troubled me is can black footballers do more to take a stand against injustices whenever they appear?

United front

If they had developed over time a more united front, maybe they would have forced the authorities and the powers that be into action that is effective and forces behavioural changes within the game and dare I say it, in some cases outside it.

I fear though, based on my own experiences and the issues I highlighted earlier, that in-order to be accepted and reach the top, there has to be that element of 'fitting in'.

To return to the point I highlighted earlier, a young black boy aged 16, who wants nothing more than to become professional footballer, is hardly going to make this task more difficult by developing a reputation of complaining about things that highlight his difference or make others feel uncomfortable about their behaviour.

The team dynamic has no place for the isolated 'sensitive' loner. The academy coaches, managers, assistants and chairman faced with a choice of a player who takes a stand on issues they are uncomfortable with, racial or otherwise, or the player who is part of the group and rolls with its punches and banter, will always prefer the latter, football ability notwithstanding.

This is the culture that the young black footballer grows and develops in during their formative years. This must have an impact on them as the goal of professional football is the Holy Grail they work towards.

Does this experience and subconscious conditioning into this 'please all' football culture extend into later life?

Refusing to play

When faced with a torrent of hatred and racist abuse too many times I've heard English black players throw out the well worn lines about 'not letting them win' and 'ignoring the abuse'. 'Letting the authorities deal with it' and 'shutting them up by winning on the pitch'. How about walking off it? Refusing to play until serious action is taken to stamp it out?!

Roberto Carlos recently walked off during a game in Russia, hosts of 2018 World Cup, after a banana was hurled onto the pitch in his direction.

Many players have threatened to do so such as Thierry Henry after abuse in Holland, and Rio Ferdinand following the abuse of England's black players in 2004 and 2006 in Spain, a move that would have been backed by his white teammates incidentally. However, it's still an option that has remained un-used. Why?

Paul Davis, who works with the PFA and who represented Arsenal with distinction for 15 years feels that this unprecedented action would have a huge impact: 'The players now have so much power, if a black player walked off the pitch the repercussions would be tremendous. It would change the game for the better,"

Sadly, for even today's black footballers this step is a step too far. As powerful a message it would send, the ramifications in the wider football culture of these players seems fraught with issues that maybe they'd rather do without.

Lesser of the two evils

So the lesser of the two evils results in the grin-and-bare it mindset that doesn't want to affect the status-quo, rock the boat or make peers and colleagues feel uncomfortable. One option changes nothing, the other could change everything.

Rio Ferdinand's twitter feud with Mr Blatter over the FIFA president's comments is a rare and commendable example of a player using what capacity he has to vent his view and take a stand. Unfortunately, this is an exception and not the rule.

In a World where social media rules and anyone can have their say, where was the backlash from black players to the Wigan chairman's comments?

I suggest that these sorts of issues are not as apparent in American sports. The dynamic of the country, its legislation and its history mean that many of the barriers that appear to exist around our national game are not found in their key sports.

Laws like the Rooney rule, established in the US in 2003, rightly or wrongly allow access to senior coaching positions within the NFL for black applicants. Currently the youngest ever coach to win the Super Bowl is Mike Tomlin aged 36 and black.

Afflicted with issues along racial lines

The country that gave birth to the 'sit ins' and the civil rights struggles of the 60's, now have a generation of black people that are not prepared to accept and move on. Their sports could be said to be better for it.

And so what are we left with here? A fantastic game that continues to be afflicted with issues along racial lines. Issues that it could be said are not squarely confronted, and those within the game, who could be said to be the victims, shying away from making a united stand in return for an easy life.

What will happen when there's an emergence as there no doubt will be of Asian footballers, or women become more prominent in the game? Will they just fit in to the 'fit in culture'? I hope by the time new breakthroughs are made, issues around difference in whatever form become less so.

I hope the catalyst for this change are the players that realise they have the power and responsibility to make that change happen…whatever the consequences.

By Jason Mckoy

Jason Mckoy is a UEFA qualified coach, sports fan, commentator and former player - who now runs Mercurial Sports, providing team wear, sports apparel and equipment to semi-professional football teams, amateur clubs and educational institutions, including colleges and universities. Jason's career has taken him from playing for professional clubs' youth teams and semi-professionally, through to leading roles in sport development and education programmes for various companies, including FIFA recognised award-winning charities. To contact Jason, or for more information about Mercurial Sports, go to www.mercurialsports.com - you can also follow Jason on Twitter @mercurialsports


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