Racism in football: A sordid issue which threatens to ruin the beautiful game

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Despicable, prejudice and shameful. Racism has been a stain on the soul of soccer for generations and a series of high-profile incidents in recent times has prompted calls for tougher intervention from football’s governing bodies. The contentious issue continues to be a persistent issue within football in the modern age, and many question whether enough is being done to prevent discrimination within the game.

Unsavoury high-profile incidents regarding racism and involving supporters have plagued English football this season. This matter reignited in December when Manchester City and England forward Raheem Sterling appeared to be racially abused by a fan at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League when facing Chelsea. This occurred merely a few days after a Tottenham supporter was arrested for throwing a banana at Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the Emirates Stadium.

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Following the game against Chelsea, Sterling decided to use Instagram to take a stand against the discriminatory abuse he had endured, in which he accused the media of fuelling racism and focused on the relationship between journalists and their portrayal of black and minority ethnic public figures.

Sterling’s response was widely commended, with many citing his statement as liberating and empowering, and having the potential to inspire others to speak out about any racism/discrimination they have experienced and could be a watershed moment in tacking racism.

Discussing the issue on BT Sport, former England and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdidand questions whether football’s governing bodies are doing enough in the fight against racism and applauded Sterling’s reaction to the abused he endured but voiced his concerns whether players will follow Sterling’s decision to publicly speak of racism they have experienced

Kick it Out, an organisation designed to tackle all forms of discrimination within football, anti-racism educator Troy Townsend believes black players from the grass roots to the top tier are let down by predominantly white boardrooms at clubs and governing bodies.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Townsend criticised a lack of diversity in the Premier League and FA boardrooms.

“The problem with our game is leadership. The authorities, the powers-that-be, have a responsibility to everyone involved in the game and have a responsibility to speak out when the situation arises. There are players who feel let down.”

To address this new wave of racism within the game, Sports Minister Mims Davies has demanded an “urgent” meeting with football leaders to tackle racism and discrimination in the sport. The Football Association, Premier League, Football League, players’ representatives and acclaimed anti-discrimination groups such as Stonewall and Kick It Out have been invited to the meeting with the aim to agree on a new “zero tolerance” approach to discrimination at matches.

“Together we must find a way to tackle this,” Davies said. “Those involved in abuse are not football fans. They are using football as a cloak for discriminatory, and often criminal, behaviour. They are not welcome in our stadiums.”

Fans have been crying out for procedures being implemented to prevent racism and discriminatory behaviour occurring within football. A method to eradicate racism within the game is to issue indefinite, prolonged bans to anyone guilty of racist or discriminatory behaviour.

In September 2012, the FA found John Terry guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand during a Premier League match in October 2011. He was handed a four-match ban and a 220,000 pounds fine. A week prior to that match, Luis Suarez was accused of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. He was eventually banned for eight matches and fined 40,000 pounds.

While such prompt action is laudable, there is a case to argue that the stakes need to be raised higher. Incidents of racism deriving from spectators already warrants lifetime stadium bans; although perhaps not to that magnitude, it could be time to issue stricter punishments for players and referees as well.

To tackle racism at grassroots level, every club and national FA needs to be held accountable for incidents in their respective stadiums. In addition, penalizing fans with substantial fines culpable for such incidents will consequently provide a further incentive for them to trickle down the punishment even more severely to the actual offenders involved.

Furthermore, we can draw inspiration from what policies other countries and sports utilise to provide more ethnic diversity within the set up of English Football.

‘The Rooney Rule’ is an NFL policy that requires league teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and other football operation jobs. While it’s unrealistic to ask teams to hire coaches on the basis of their race, it’s certainly a fair requirement that a minority candidate at least gets the opportunity of being awarded with the job.

This Rule needs to be applied within football. With the influx of a greater number of ethnic minorities into respectable positions, racism as we know it will eventually die down. It certainly is not a straightforward process – but it is an affair that needs to be persistently fought if we are to cleanse football by eliminating racism.


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