Three years ago English football was rocked when John Terry and Luis Suarez were both found guilty of racially abusing opponents on the pitch. Social media became the forum to galvanise an often disparate community across club and league divides, focusing their energies on a single subject.
It was the first time, says Jason Roberts, that footballers had come together to discuss a critical issue - and discovered a collective voice.
Now that voice has established a legacy in the form of the Sports People's Think Tank (SPTT), an organisation being launched tomorrow with the aim of empowering sports professionals and helping them drive change across the industry. Founded by a group of former Premier League footballers - former Blackburn forward Roberts, West Brom's under 21s' development coach Darren Moore, and the former Birmingham City defender Michael Johnson - the organisation has published its inaugural report in which football is described as being dogged by "institutional discrimination".
With only two black managers across 92 professional league clubs and few leadership positions filled by black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME or BME) figures, the research is damning in its depiction of ingrained cultural and racial prejudice.
"Football has failed to complete the promise of true equality," says Roberts. "The numbers point to a problem that any right-minded individual would be shocked at. Most disappointing is the overall game's refusal to engage in some dialogue which challenges the decision-makers and leadership of the game, rather than focusing on the victims of these practices - prospective BME coaches and managers."
Roberts believes the Terry and Suarez incidents sparked the questioning of the status quo among footballers, black and white. "You realised lots of people were thinking the same thing and had the same frustrations," he said. "There was a sense that people felt we weren't where we thought we were. All the good and high-profile anti-racism work aside, underneath that, how much had the game really moved on since the 1970s and '80s?
"The SPTT was born out of discussions between various footballers and other disciplines of sport trying to find a way to be involved in the industry conversation - but independently."
The concept, backed by Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor, is to provide a platform in which to investigate a variety of issues affecting professional sportsmen and women on topics as diverse as women returning to a sports career after having a baby, to concussion on the field of play.
For Dr Steven Bradbury, a leading sports and sociology academic at Loughborough University and author of the report, the attitudes of the 1970s and '80s continue to hamper the progress of black players beyond the pitch. "In football, black players have a lifespan of 35 years. Once your body is worn out, as a black player, football is done with you. Whereas if you are a white player there are opportunities in football beyond your playing career," he says.
Bradbury spent three years interviewing BAME coaches and former players between the ages of 25 and 55, as well as analysing data supplied by the FA for the Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE)-funded report.
It analyses some of the historical factors resulting in a lack of black managers working today, including the "captain to coach" pathway, which automatically excluded many black players over the past three decades. The report reveals that black players remain on the outside of a network of "key powerbrokers at clubs" - directors, chairmen and senior administrators - preventing them from accessing a football employment cycle so dependent on "personal preference, patronage and sponsored mobility".
Bradbury's interviews with black coaches and former players give insight into attitudinal barriers facing BAME figures in football. He describes conversations between players and decision-makers where casual prejudice reared its head. "They might say: 'We didn't think black players were interested in becoming coaches' . . . and there was a broader perception that black players had bad attitudes and couldn't be coaches," he said. Bradbury describes those in power privately revealing their concerns about the capacity of a black manager to lead a white dressing room, for example.
An overriding theme was for "a black coach always to be seen in his racial self, not in terms of his professional identity as a qualified coach, whereas white coaches were never defined by their whiteness".
The effect was to create an environment in which black coaches were seen as the risky choice, whereas a white coach was the comfortable option and the fallback position. He says this has contributed to the merry-go-round of white coaches who lose jobs and are swiftly reappointed elsewhere, leading to "a strong feeling among some BME coaches that they have to work twice as hard for fewer opportunities and are less likely to be offered second chances to become coaches at other clubs".
The report makes clear it is "highly unlikely that any one BME coach has experienced all or none of the above practices of unequal treatment. What is much more likely is that many BME coaches have experienced at least some of the above incidences of exclusion across different football settings and at different stages of their professional coaching careers". It concludes: "It is the contention of this report that the processes of conscious and unconscious racial bias referred to above constitute a form of institutional discrimination which has had clear negative impacts for BME coaches."
Roberts hopes the report will be the first of many commissioned by the SPTT across a wide range of subjects. "Ultimately, this think-tank can be proactive in addressing the issues sports people feel needs urgent attention," he said. "Our first report reflects this - and we envisage future work around issues that may not even be on the radar at the moment."
Sunday Indo Sport