As US President Barack Obama swept back into power, I felt a real surge of pride taken from the fact that young, old, white, black, gay, straight, Hispanic and people of all dispositions had voted once again to make a man of colour the most powerful person on the planet.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that perhaps my own footnote in history might not be any of my professional deeds. Rather a sporting happen stance which saw me become Malia and Sasha Obama’s first “soccer” coach. Back in those heady days when the President was a Senator, who would rush back on Friday’s to watch me coach his girls…oops…. watch his loved ones play pick up soccer in Chicago, the girls were part of an equally successful kiddies team.
Sport, the great unifier with its unique ability to bring people together on a level playing field, typically mirrors society and local politics. That’s why it remains shocking that the spectre of racism continues to haunt our game.
Amid my US election euphoria, I took a moment to look at the Football Against Racism in Europe list of incidents of racism, xenophobia, extreme nationalism or homophobia that had been reported to the group for the month of October.
It seems that monkey chants and gestures are back en vogue. Did I miss a couple of decades?
In several instances, monkey chants were the popular choice of bigotry. During England’s U21 game against Serbia, the FIFA World Cup qualifier between Bulgaria and Denmark, in a league game in Croatia, during Chelsea’s heated battle with Manchester United monkey gestures and even the much maligned banana made an appearance in Israel when Beitar Jerusalem played Hapoel Tel Aviv.
The fact that players, such as black England lion Danny Rose reacted angrily to the chants and Toto Tamuz, a Nigerian born Israeli Tel Aviv player was sent off after gesturing to the crowd to keep quiet is….well football. The abused are forced to accept the unacceptable and sanctioned for reacting naturally to acts of aggression by large uncontrolled mobs.
What makes such outrageous abuse unacceptable is that it is so outdated. Many of us had hoped that we had gotten past such childish and moronic treatment. Many of us, actually believed such issues were a thing of the past, for the most part. Intellectually, we had moved on to discussing more subtle forms of racism.
Reports by organisations such as Football Unites Racism Divides have been highlighting a small but growing re-emergence of bigotry on terraces. During the 2010-11 season, there were 43 arrests for racist chanting at football matches in England and Wales, the highest total since 2005-6. But never did I believe that we were still stuck in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
To see such blatant, old school chants on show at premier leagues around the world is not just shocking but embarrassing for all of us in sports for development. Once such challenges became apparent it is frankly, unbelievable to think that our governing bodies failed to institute sweeping changes
In what other entertainment venue or work place or development arena could a group of customers or viewers enter and start chanting racist abuse at employees without being swiftly rounded on and arrested. If that happened regularly, wouldn’t the company in question come under state scrutiny?
Football must lead on issues of inclusivity and social acceptance. It must lead because, the core of its appeal is its unifying ability. It’s powerful social draw and its amazing international popularity.
We know it takes time to make substantial changes to any large organisation but crisis demands swift and meaningful action. These are not, isolated incidents as we’d like to think. It’s merely that the FARE list or FURD reports represent a small fraction of the bigotry on display week in, week out.
We can’t run from that anymore. New and more aggressive action is needed urgently to show these offenders that it will not be tolerated. Our efforts to educate must be intensified and improved.
I remain confident that the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and members such as Jason Roberts can play a pivotal role in pressing for change. The PFA has suggested, among a number of things, introducing the Rooney Rule, or “Roberts Rule” as I like to call it. This, it believes, would help increase the number and scale of people of colour in more influential management and administration positions.
This is a far more radical suggestion than I think the PFA has so far been given credit for. The Rule, which forces organisations to interview more minorities for key positions, would over time help change the face of the game. The single biggest concern of former minority and black players is their inability to get management and coaching jobs even at clubs they played many years for.
Yes, the Rule is discriminatory in nature. Positive discrimination. For as long as the game has been in existence, black players have been denied opportunities to coach and manage. This needs to be redressed affirmatively and the Rule will guarantee that it is. Does that mean some capable white candidates may find it tougher, yes.
The Rule is a last resort to solving an age old problem. It is a prescriptive method designed to force change for the better because that change will not happen otherwise.
There is overwhelming evidence that the English game needs it. One black manager in the Premier League. Only three black managers among the 92 Premier League and Football League clubs – Norwich’s Chris Hughton, Charlton boss Chris Powell and Notts County’s Keith Curle.
The suggestion is laughable that we don’t have enough qualified black coaches to make the Rule a success. Given that more than 25 percent of the current playing staff is black and there are hundreds – possibly thousands – of former players, there is a big enough pool to choose potential candidates from.
And, there are good, qualified coaches of colour the world over. When Arsenal chose Arsene Wenger he was so highly thought of that he was coaching in Japan. Nobody suggested that Kevin Keegan or Kenny Dalglish or Alan Shearer weren’t qualified for management jobs. I mean, Gary Neville is an important member of the England coaching staff because of his playing experience not his lack of actual coaching practice.
Most top managers were given an opportunity at some stage by a WHITE chairman that saw the ability to win games as a manager in them. They acquired the experience to manage through many years of trial and error on the job. It is shameful that fewer than a handful of the many hundreds of black players have EVER had that opportunity in the amateur or professional ranks.
Once given the opportunity, good candidates will quickly emerge with the requisite skills and will acquire the appropriate training and badges. But let us not use the current lack of opportunity as the reason not to make radical changes to improve the current status quo.
We understand that more needs to be done at the base of the game to encourage more coaches of colour at grassroots level and non-league. But let us not suggest that the majority of coaches in the top divisions get their jobs because of their coaching badges and qualifications.
The Rule is a response to issues at the very top of the game, not a solution to every potential issue of bigotry and xenophobia we face. We need a package of measures to better attack the issues from a number of angles. Grassroots encouragement, special education programmes, non-league quotas, improved community outreach programmes by and for people of colour.
The time is right to force through more people of colour in the top divisions. We know football’s institutions don’t want to make this happen and don’t like the prescriptive nature of the Rule but we need to rid the terraces of monkey chants and the dugout of latent bigotry.
However, the UK is not alone in requiring change. The Rooney Rule was developed to tackle perceived challenges within American Football. But many of our coaches and administrators within the US soccer fraternity point to a similar lack of high level opportunities within the game across the Atlantic.
It may surprise you to know, that black soccer coaches in the US, face similar challenges as their counterparts in the UK and are equally eager to see the emergence of the Rooney Rule in the professional ranks there. It would be good to remember that the Rooney Rule has been applied only on a very limited scale in the US. There are just 32 NFL teams that are subject to it.
In fact, many US soccer coaches – and by extension coaches of colour in other major US sports – argue that there is an even greater need to affect the Rooney Rule in college sports because this is the breeding ground for top managers in the US game.
The point is clear. If you want more coaches and administrators of colour, you must give them opportunities to succeed and provide proper pathways to the top. In my view, that requires prescriptive measures. Now.
Delroy Alexander- MB: 17585198190
Chairman, Sacred Sports Foundation
Delroy Alexander is the Chairman of the Sacred Sports Foundation, a not for profit charity based in the St. Lucia. He is a seasoned sports administrator and is a former Chicago Tribune senior investigative business reporter and a Pulitzer Prize nominee journalist. Founded by former Peterborough, Lincoln City and Macclesfield Town manager Keith Alexander, the Sacred Sports Foundation uses sport to work with disadvantaged Caribbean youth. As well as having partnered with the St. Lucia Football Association, the Foundation signed a three year agreement with Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) and secured important grants from UNESCO and the Australian Government among others. In 2013, the Foundation will host a major conference, Sport in Black & White, focusing on actively looking for and implementing game changing solutions. We will be writing regularly on issues of importance to help spark the debate and to be a catalyst for change.
The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Football.