Wednesday 22 November 2017

Ugliness in beautiful game extends far beyond racism

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

The Merseyside derby takes place this afternoon and the following baseless chant will probably be heard from Everton fans - "Your baby's not yours, your baby's not yours. Stevie Gerrard, you're baby's not yours". There will be no campaigns and t-shirts aimed at stamping it out and Gerrard will play on regardless. To many people, it's as if racism and homophobia are the only ugly forms of expression in the game today.

Last week the PFA issued a six-point plan to combat racism in football. It came after complaints it was not doing enough to tackle the issue following the refusal of some players to wear anti-racism T-shirts before their games last weekend. There is talk of a breakaway association exclusively for black players too. A complex issue like this requires careful consideration, but identifying the extent of the problem would be the first place to start.

I don't think racism is a major issue in dressing rooms or in crowds, as it was 20 years ago. Look at any Premier League pitch and you'll see one of the most multi-cultural workplaces in the whole of the UK. Speaking recently at the Leaders in Football conference, former England goalkeeper David James said, "I struggle with the racist issue in football because I don't see it", before rubbishing the notion that the John Terry case was symptomatic of a wider problem in the game. "That's not because I've got my head in the sand. In the earlier days yes, but things have changed."

Rio Ferdinand will be booed this afternoon by Chelsea fans. What will be most obvious to everyone is that he is black and the brother of the player John Terry racially abused. It will be a repeat of the boos aimed at Patrice Evra by Liverpool fans after he was racially abused by one of their own.

This is not fans condoning racism. This is not fans booing people because they are the victims of racism. This is not fans rallying behind players because they are guilty of racist behaviour. Blinded by tribalism, they don't even see that booing a black player in these instances makes them look like racists. The tribalism they feel overrides any need they have to behave in an acceptable way. In fact, that they are comfortable booing black players in this way shows how colour-blind they really are.

However, advancements still need to be made in the administration and management positions of the game. The PFA's suggestion to introduce quotas for black coaches in the interviewing stage of coaching positions is welcome, but I don't see how it would work in practice. Managers are not appointed on the basis of how they perform in interviews. They are generally approached through their agents and asked if they want the job. Conducting interviews with black candidates while this goes on would be ridiculous.

The PFA also propose that racial abuse be upgraded to gross misconduct and therefore be a sackable offence. Jason Roberts said he thought most people would agree with that but I don't think they necessarily would. Take the following case that occurred in the Premier League.

A player once complained he was racially abused by an opponent, but it was in response to his own threat to break that player's legs when he next received the ball. Who deserves the protection of the law in that case? Although racism is a particularly grotesque type of ignorance, legislating against moronic behaviour is difficult to do in that environment. In no way does it mean it should be accepted, but it shouldn't come with an automatic dismissal. Context is all-important.

Former Wales striker Nathan Blake said that "the problem is that the people making the decisions

will never know how it feels to be racially abused," but I don't believe that's the problem at all. You don't have to be the victim of a crime to understand the nature of it, nor must you experience discrimination before wanting to deal with it. It is too complex an issue to assume expertise on the grounds of being a victim alone.

Football grounds are too hostile and hate-filled to expect civilised behaviour from everyone, and that will never change. Effective punishment for offenders should be the aim, but the Luis Suarez and John Terry cases showed the difficulty of applying that in practice. The vile nature of racism rightly puts it at the top of priorities, but it rings a little hollow for me if all other forms of abuse and discrimination are not dealt with in the same way. It's a serious and emotive issue, so changes to legislation need to be properly thought through.

Both Ferdinand and Terry will be booed today, but it won't be on the grounds of race. In order to belong, fans now feel they must be as abusive as possible to the other team. This is tribalism, not racism. Football grounds have a way of reducing otherwise decent people into behaving like animals. If only there was a campaign that could properly deal with that.

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