The last few minutes before the restart of English Premier League football matches are a sharp reminder of the current climate in which we find ourselves. Unlike before, each team now uses a different entrance to the pitch or the same one but at different times so that the teams aren’t in the tunnel simultaneously.
Once they are on the pitch, there are no handshakes before kick-off because of the Covid-19 pandemic that has brought every sphere of life to its knees. There are no supporters in the stands. The only people occupying them are a few club officials and the team reserves, who use the stand as a place to better practice social distancing. The usual “bench” is now occupied by a handful of members of the technical team.
The medics and some administrators wear masks. A moment of silence is observed for the people who have died from the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 500 000 lives and seen over 10 million people worldwide test positive. After that moment of silence, players take a knee in protest against another pandemic: racism.
The first 12 matches following the resumption of football in England after Covid-19 forced an abrupt halt to the season saw players’ names on the back of their shirts replaced with Black Lives Matter (BLM). After those 12 games, the BLM logo appeared on the arm of their kit. It will be there until the end of the season. This stance, along with taking a knee, was the players’ way of showing solidarity with George Floyd, who was killed – like many black people before him – by the police in the United States.
Floyd has become yet another symbol of black people who are routinely brutalised and lose their lives at the hands (and knees) of US police officers. American football player Colin Kaepernick was the first in the sport to take a knee in protest against police brutality. He was blackballed for his action. The National Football Association (NFL) reacted angrily to his silent protest and ensured that he was unemployable. But recent BLM protests have forced the NFL to change its stance on the now 32-year-old quarterback.
‘Get that son of a bitch off the field’
The white supremacist who currently resides in the White House in the US tore into the players who took a knee alongside Kaepernick. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” said Donald Trump.
The NFL and US Soccer Federation banned taking a knee during the singing of the American national anthem. But they have both backtracked, with the NFL admitting that it was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier” and encouraging “all to speak out and peacefully protest”. Despite their words and the NFL’s admission, Kaepernick remains an unemployed quarterback even though he can still hold his own in the sport.
This is why it’s important to take with a pinch of salt these moments in which the NFL, US Soccer and the English Premier League realise that black lives matter, Nascar finally banning the Confederate flag or the moment of silence observed at 8.46am every day of the golfing PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Challenge. The latter corresponds with the eight minutes and 46 seconds that police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee to Floyd’s neck.
While they are commendable moves and a step in the right direction, they mean nothing without action taken to dismantle the systematic racism that exists in sport across the globe. Research by Sporting Equals, a charity organisation in the United Kingdom that advocates for equality and diversity in sport, revealed that only 3% of board members in the country’s national sports governing bodies are black.
“The lack of equality of opportunity is prevalent in the sport sector. With potentially 95% of senior management, board members and the workforce being white,” says Sporting Equals. Football is a perfect example of this. Most of the power players – Premier League managers, key decision makers on club boards and club owners – are white, while many black managers have been overlooked.
“This is a time to speak on these subjects, speak on injustice, especially in my field,” said English forward Raheem Sterling, who has been the target of numerous racist attacks on and off the field. “There’s something like 500 players in the Premier League and a third of them are black, and we have no representation of us in the hierarchy, no representation of us in the coaching staffs. There’s not a lot of faces that we can relate to and have conversations with.
“With these protests that are going on, it’s all well and good just talking. But it’s time that we need to have conversations, to be able to spark debates. There’s Steven Gerrard, your Frank Lampards, you have your Sol Campbells and you have your Ashley Coles. All had great careers, all played for England. At the same time, they’ve all respectfully donned their coaching badges to coach at the highest level and the two that haven’t been given the right opportunities are the two black former players. I feel like that’s what’s lacking here. It’s not just taking the knee, it is about giving people the chance they deserve.”
The Rooney Rule
Black managers are seldom given the chance they deserve and when they are, the first sight of turbulence leads to their being sacked. This isn’t only an English phenomenon, it’s universal. In Africa, to borrow from the late Nigerian player and coach Stephen Keshi, football federations don’t mind plucking a “white dude” who is merely surfing from Europe and giving him the job of managing the national team. But they are sceptical to give the job to a local legend who has donned the jersey as a player and earned his stripes as a coach.
A scan of the continent quickly reveals how many countries are managed by a local coach, and how many of those countries truly back and support their local coach compared with how they treat European or South American coaches. And black administrators are doing this.
“African coaches, when [federations] employ them, [the federations] want them to win the World Cup, the Africa Cup of Nations and every game,” Keshi told the British Broadcasting Corporation. “Meanwhile, if you give a white person the same job, you tell the white person they need one year to adapt, to know the country and the players. They are told, ‘Don’t worry, take your time.’ That is unprofessional and is one thing that is killing African football.”
In England, the Football Association implemented the Rooney Rule, which requires it to interview at least one “black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)” applicant for any coaching job in the association. The Premier League, despite players wearing shirts saying Black Lives Matter and there being only one BAME manager, said they wouldn’t implement the Rooney Rule.
As Jonathan Liew wrote in The Guardian newspaper, “The lack of black football coaches stems in part from a lack of black chief executives and sporting directors and owners. This stems in part from a systematic and racist assumption that black people cannot be trusted with positions of executive or financial power, one that also manifests itself in the lack of black representation in the judiciary, in business, in politics. This, in turn, has its roots in the historical concentration of wealth and power in white hands, often at the expense of enslaved or subjugated black peoples. Try and stitch that to the back of a football shirt.”
Real action, not a front
The stances that English football have taken to “fight” against racism don’t address the problem, they simply make those in power look as though they are doing something about it. There is still a lot that needs to be done to change the make-up of the sport’s decision makers and managers. And to address the racist abuse footballers experience on and off the pitch. The sanctions meted out against offenders haven’t been a harsh enough deterrent to stop them from repeating their racist behaviour.
The media also needs to look at the role it has and continues to play in fuelling racism. A study by RunRepeat in association with the Professional Footballers’ Association confirmed the open secret that there is racial bias towards light-skinned black players. These findings “show bias from commentators who praised players with lighter skin tone as more intelligent, as being of higher quality and harder working than players with darker skin tone. Players with darker skin tone were significantly more likely to be reduced to their physical characteristics or athletic abilities – namely pace and power – than players with lighter skin tone were.”
The racial bias doesn’t end there, it’s also evident in how tabloid newspapers frame their stories. If a black player buys a house he “splashes out on a mansion” but if a white player does the same thing, he “buys home for mum”. The framing of these stories about two young Manchester City players means that readers view them differently despite them both simply investing in their futures.
Tabloids are brilliant at creating the caricature of a black player who is flashy with money while his white counterparts make sound investment decisions. While the media calls on authorities to act on addressing racism, it must also look in the mirror and address the role it plays in souring divisions. As much as sport brings joy, it’s also a perfect detonator of hate because of its us-versus-them nature.
“The reasons sport can be used for good are the same reasons it can be used for evil. Its power to bind us unshakeably to a cause and instil a tribalism against anyone who dares question us is not tempered by morality. Just as fans sing songs about the Holocaust, so too do others sing songs of tragedies afflicting other fans,” Vithushan Ehantharajah wrote for the Independent newspaper.
This period is an opportunity for almost every stakeholder in sport to relook their actions and how they have fuelled racism. And this process shouldn’t be about doing things that look good on paper but amount to nothing in reality. Apparel companies shouldn’t only produce “woke” adverts, they should also pay the people who make their products better wages.
Talking with their money
The sponsorship market as a whole needs to relook at how it does business. There is a lot of systematic racism in who gets sponsored and who gets a lot of money. This would explain why Maria Sharapova, for instance, was the highest-grossing female athlete through sponsorships rather than Serena Williams, who has consistently wiped the floor with her. Naomi Osaka taking this spot recently is a promising development.
After trying to hold his tongue, Free State Stars general manager Rantsi Mokoena eventually opened up about his sponsorship frustrations in South Africa. “I am not sure if I want to have this conversation in front of the cameras,” Mokoena said in 2018. “It baffles me. I really don’t understand how football, consumed by the majority of the population, yet you have so many clubs in the PSL [Premier Soccer League] without sponsors. If I must compare with other sporting codes, and not to undermine those codes, but there are some cricket teams that I don’t even know what they are called but they are well sponsored.
“I doubt that they are doing anything different to what we are doing, except for perhaps that the economy is in different hands. Like I said, I don’t really want to get into this conversation because it may get very political.”
The power of sponsors is twofold. They can address their own racism and with their financial sway, they can force sporting bodies to act on this scourge. Because money is the only thing that seems to force those in charge into action.
The most powerful people in sport are not the players who toil for our enjoyment or the coaches whose tactics they follow or the fans whose hard-earned money keeps it all ticking over. It’s the sponsors, with their logos splashed all over stadiums, the players’ kit and our television screens.
“Ever since television started showing players up close, the entire uniform from the head to toe has turned into a billboard,” Eduardo Galeano wrote in his book, Football in Sun and Shadow. “When a star takes his time tying his shoes, it’s not slow fingers but sharp practice: he’s showing off the Adidas, Nike or Reebok logo on his feet.
“Even back in the 1936 Olympics organised by Hitler, the winning athletes featured Adidas’ three stripes on their shoes. In the 1990 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, Adidas’ three stripes were everywhere, including on the ball and every strip of clothing worn by the players, the referee and the linesmen. Two English journalists, Simpsons and Jennings, reported that only the referee’s whistle didn’t belong to Adidas.”
Such power, when used correctly and not wasted on gimmicks, could bring about meaningful change in sport.