Racism in football isn’t just a ‘few idiots’


Written by Akshay Kulkarni (@ImpatientPedant)

It seemed almost to fly in the face of irony when the Premier League’s designated two weekends for anti-racism were marred by racist abuse recently.

Whether it was Wilfried Zaha being called a ‘diving monkey’, slurs that were around in the 1800s being flung at Christian Kabasele, or Mohamed Salah being dubbed a ‘bomber’, it seemed racists up and down the country were particularly unabashed.

But surely these were edge cases? For two weekends, proudly multicultural teams had held up ‘No Room for Racism’ posters and the strongest condemnation followed every single horrible incident.

Fans played their part and rallied around the players affected. Breaking zealous club lines, many managers and governing bodies all spoke up condemning the actions of an idiotic, ignorant few.

It went as far as the president of FIFA calling for ‘harsh sanctions’ and a ‘zero tolerance approach’. From top to bottom, it seemed an unequivocal condemnation of racism.

All of that, it is fair to say, was heartening to see. But condemnation and grand gestures only do so much.

When these incidents reared their head, and the cycle of condemnation and anger followed, many thought the punishment of the warped offenders would be enough to draw a line under the incident. It is tempting to think that racism is just out there, in the minds of ignorant buffoons who know no better. It is almost a comforting thought for some.

But that could not be farther from the truth.

The insidious spectre of racism

It is a sad truth but condemning ‘a few idiots who ruin the fun’ isn’t enough. Racism is insidious and deep-rooted in our society, and it is as top to bottom as any condemnation. And football reflects society, a mirror better than any other.

For just one example, look no further than this country’s governing body.

The FA strongly condemned racial abuse at Montenegero a month ago, complaining immediately to UEFA. The very same FA fined a non-league club for walking off the pitch after one of their players got racially abused (for ‘abandoning the match’). To add insult to injury, the team whose fans carried out the racist abuse got fined £5 less. So much for equality!

A headline saying 'Non-league Padiham FC fined for leaving pitch in protest at racist abuse.'

The FA defended their fines by saying ‘all levels are working hard to tackle discrimination’.

There are so many statistics that show the disparity at the top levels. In English football, just seven percent of the current Premier League and Football League managers, and 2.6% of all the permanent managers in Premier League history, are BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic). For such a multicultural country, and such a multicultural sport, this is frankly absurd.

This article, however, is not about disparities higher up. It is about how racism percolates lower down – to fans like you and me.

What is racist?

Straight away, a thought might have occurred to you. ‘Is he calling me racist? Is he…calling everyone racist? That’s just not right! That’s just not true!’

Far be it for me to assume anything about anyone. But this instinctive thought goes back to what was talked about earlier.

It is tempting to think that racism is in the mind of a twisted few. But it is deeply ingrained in how we, the fans, talk and perceive the sport. As deeply rooted as racism is in the sport itself. I am not calling everyone racist – merely that the way society is stacked up, we often don’t know how complicated and far-reaching racism is.

Think about, for example, the way we talk about black players. Paul Pogba, one of the most vilified players in the sport, is praised for his excellent athleticism and pace. And rightly so, the Frenchman has that in spades. His Manchester United teammate Romelu Lukaku is praised likewise, and for his strength off the ball.

Are those bad things in and of themselves? Of course not. But why is it that you never see thinkpieces praising Pogba’s brilliant vision and intelligence, and instead those praising his ‘pace and power’? Why is it that Lukaku’s superb positioning and awareness on the ball don’t feature as prominently as some other attributes when we talk about him?

A screenshot of Daily Mail columnist Jamie Redknapp talking about Paul Pogba's 'pace and power'.

Sky pundit Jamie Redknapp never meant anything negative with this descriptor, but the fact he chose to use it is symptomatic of wider issues.

Criticism and praise of footballers is a given. But when we talk about players like Pogba, like Lukaku, like Zaha, it is tempting to praise them for their physical prowess and nothing else. It is also tempting to admonish them for their seemingly half-witted mistakes. Why is this so?

Off the top of your head, how many GIFs have you seen of Lukaku, Zaha, and Raheem Sterling’s mistakes? Compare that number to even the most famous non-BAME players. The difference for many will be stark.

It’s not racist, many will argue. But this is the kind of deep-rooted issue that doesn’t readily come to mind when talking about racism. It isn’t just someone doing monkey chants – it’s more subtle things like this. Talking about black players in these terms only feeds into negative stereotypes about them – that they’re only good for their physical ability and nothing else. Some will even argue it as a positive. ‘He’s built like a brick s**thouse and I love him. What’s wrong with celebrating that?’

And, of course, there is not something inherently wrong with that. But when a ‘Cheap Beasts’ compilation on FIFA YouTube only includes black players in the thumbnail, the problem gets put into realer terms. Imagine taking that headline out of context, and you can surely see it emerge.

A screenshot of a YouTube video with the headline 'Cheap Beasts'. All players featured are black.

‘Cheap Beasts’ is an interesting title for this video, as positive a connotation that may be.

Stereotypes, negative or positive, only lead down a rabbit hole of negative, dishonest perception. And that eventually leads into dehumanization.

When Sterling complained about the unfair coverage black players receive, for example, many didn’t ‘see the racism’. Some accused Danny Rose of ‘playing the race card’ when he said he couldn’t wait to retire because of racism. These two incidents are precisely the kind of unthinking behaviour that eventually leads to where we are now.

It isn’t just banter

As I have touched upon multiple times throughout this piece, there are many (too many, I’d say) defences for racism, even the most unabashed kind. Greatest hits include ‘YOU’RE the one who’s bringing race into it, not me!’, ‘It’s just a word, get over it!’ or ‘It’s just banter, you have to take it’. It is outside the scope of this article to tackle all of these impassioned defences, however flimsy and ignorant they are.

But the very fact many seek to brush away the problem, sweep it under the rug, is telling. It can be uncomfortable for some to confront the reality of the situation, that of living in a (still) deeply racist society.

That reckoning, however, is the key for us as a society to tackle this menace. In my opinion, racism is about behaviours and not just attitudes. It is up to each of us to actively change the way we talk and behave to seek to heal the fractured society we live in. Indeed, it is our moral responsibility to do so.

The way we do that is by actively listening to BAME players. It took a Colin Kaepernick knee to ignite debate about racism in America. Today, many players and the PFA have decided to impose a social media blackout to protest the recent scourge of racist incidents. The stands taken may even be more hardline than that soon, and it probably should be. Hearing these players out is one of the best ways to put them at the centre of the story instead of any other way around.

Part of that listening is about support. That would involve anything from not defending racists, to calling out discrimination in grounds using facilities like the Kick It Out app. It is about understanding the humanity of the players behind our television screens and remembering that every time you go on social media to insult them for a performance.

More than anything, it is about acknowledgement and changing mindsets. Football is a mirror to a deeply fractured society, and one will never change without the other.

Singing racist chants makes you a racist. But not calling out racist behaviour makes you a complicit one. And in the beautiful game, both are as bad. #getsomeeducation

Visit the Kick It Out website for more information about how to report racist incidents and how to support diversity initiatives.