Race Matters

Never Here… but There and Everywhere: Football, Racism and Equality

Professor Jonathan Long, from the Institute for Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure, Leeds Metropolitan University, and member of the Kick It Out Accreditation Panel for Professional Football Clubs, debates the need for a more nuanced understanding of race equality in sport.

Recently the media seem to have rediscovered an interest in issues of race and ethnicity within sport, particularly football.  As far as the major sporting institutions are concerned these are now dealt with under a general equality remit along with other aspects of diversity, like gender, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, age and religion.

Just over a year ago the saw the English footballing authorities published their Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Action Plan.  It states the responsibilities of the various footballing bodies as well as their clubs and members, who are committed to this agenda.  That was followed more recently by the Football League’s Club Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Code of Practice.

There is now a substantial history of campaigning against racism in sport and football in particular where Kick It Out, Show Racism the Red Card and Football Unites Racism Divides claim some notable success.  Some campaigners were concerned that the generic approach to equality would detract from the challenges to racism; others felt that a broader consideration of equality could only help by encouraging those in sport to move beyond a fixation with abusive fans on the terraces and consider the principles that underlie equality.

Those familiar with policy on ‘race’ will appreciate that sometimes there is a gap between the words of the policies and the practice.  For example, the Premier League has an Equality Standard for professional football clubs that helps clubs recognise existing contributions to under-represented groups and also how to improve their provision and practice.  The goal is to ensure that equality is an integral part of clubs’ business plans and programme development.

Unfortunately, only seven of the current Premier League clubs have achieved any of the three levels of the Standard (and one of those is technically out of date).  The Premier League is currently updating the content of the Standard and revising the associated procedures to require its clubs to engage with it.

As in other parts of society there are many in football who do not recognise a need to do anything to challenge racism and promote equality.  This seems to be for three main reasons:

1.    Racism is not a problem ‘here’
2.    It may have been a problem in the past, but no longer
3.    It is somebody else’s job to deal with that

As so often with unpleasant problems, the source is usually perceived to be ‘over there’.  For people working in the area of race and ethnicity it can be quite alarming that clubs may recognise the racism their players or fans are subjected to in other countries, while apparently being oblivious to what happens closer to home.

When the Racial Equality Standard was first launched (in the 2004/5 season) some clubs argued that it had nothing to do with them because theirs was an entirely white part of the country.  That not only showed a limited understanding of racism, but seemed to overlook the black players in their team, the nature of their employment practices or how their personnel might treat people from other clubs.  Now that the Premier League has a generic equality standard no clubs can argue that there are no women or disabled people in their area and so cannot so readily deny their equality duties.

Supported by one of the reports of the Independent Football Commission (since replaced by the Independent Football Ombudsman), many in football subscribe to the view that ‘we’ve got it cracked’ as far as racism in English football is concerned: the reprehensible incidents of the 1980s are no more.  Sadly such pronouncements are swiftly followed by a salutary reminder to the contrary, but they also betray a lack of awareness of how racism operates and that it is not simply the reprehensible behaviour of hooligan fans.

What used to be labelled as football in the community schemes, now go under a variety of names and they evidence many praiseworthy examples of initiatives to promote equality.  Sadly this is not always appreciated by the football clubs themselves. It is not unusual to find these community organisations held at arm’s length, yet at the same time held up as demonstrations of the Club’s commitment to equality.  Beyond the ‘community’ side of the club, responsibility for equality matters commonly rests with one individual, which makes the equality agenda vulnerable when that person leaves the club.  What Kick it Out tries to encourage is an appreciation that a commitment to equality should permeate the whole club and not be left to the enthusiasm of one or even a few individuals.

It is match day incidents that attract most attention, but for racism in football to be tackled seriously it is vital to look beyond the pitch to where the whiteness of English (and UK) football is still pronounced.


Edited by Professor Kevin Hylton, Equality and Diversity in Sport, Leisure and Education, Institute for Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure, Leeds Metropolitan University

Professor Kevin Hylton and Professor Jonathan Long from Leeds Metropolitan University’s Carnegie Faculty look at the experiences of black players in football, following the publication of Sol Campbell’s autobiography here

Photo credit: Image is taken from the front cover of 'Race' and Sport: Critical Race Theory by Kevin Hylton (Routledge 2009)
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