The FA have announced their latest step in combating the gross racial inequality within football by launching its new Football Leadership Diversity Code. The aim is to increase diversity and inclusion throughout the men and women’s English leagues, with targets being set for the clubs. Over 40 clubs across have promised to reach the new diversity recruitment targets of 15% in senior leadership positions and 30% in coaching roles being from Black, Asian or Mixed-Heritage backgrounds.
And it’s about time measures like this were put in place. Racism has been ever present in football, but after the death of George Floyd in the United States, who was killed by police during his arrest in May, the fight for racial equality was catapulted to the forefront of football’s agenda. Now more than ever, we need change.
With the proportion of black footballers in the top-flight reaching more than a quarter, which is higher than the UK percentage, it was vital that the Premier League showed its support for the BLM movement. ‘Black Lives Matter’ was printed on the back of players shirts and all teams started taking a knee before the game, to show their solidarity for black lives and that football does not tolerate racism. Manchester City winger and England international, Raheem Sterling, appeared on Newsnight in support of the BLM protests that were taking place across the country, calling for the “need to actually implement change”. The BLM movement in the Premier League was gaining momentum by the second.
And then, during a game between Manchester City and Burnley, an aircraft circled the stadium dragging a banner reading ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’. This is a stark reminder of the long way to go for football to combat racism. Less than a month later, Crystal Palace forward, Wilfred Zaha, was the victim of online racist abuse, resulting in West Midlands Police arresting a 12-year-old boy. Zaha, via his social media, stressed that not enough was being done and that “We need action, we need education, things need to change.”
This kind of online abuse is not a one off. Kick It Out released figures for the 2019/20 season which showed “shocking increases in the levels of race hate … around football matches and across social media.” There was a 53% increase in reported racial abuse in the professional game between this season and last, up from 184 to 282. A PFA Charity report into online abuse aimed at professional footballers during ‘Project Restart’ revealed 43% of Premier League players in the study experienced targeted and explicitly racist abuse, with 29% of racially abusive posts coming in emoji form.
But it’s not only blatant racism we can all see that is the issue in football. Despite the high proportion of black footballers, there is a significant lack of black, Asian or other ethnic minority representation in other areas of the game. In November 2019, the FA released figures which showed that only 9.4% of registered referees were from BAME backgrounds. Sporting Equals found that only 3% of board members of national governing bodies are black; their CEO, Arun Kang, has called for there to be 20% BAME representation in sporting boards. Kang highlights: “The underlying issue here is systemic racism and bias towards BAME communities, be it conscious or unconscious.” It is this systemic racism that needs to be addressed.
October saw the Premier League launch their new ‘No Room For Racism’ campaign setting the objective of “promoting equality, diversity and inclusion across all areas of football”, pleading with fans: “if you see discrimination, challenge it, report it, change it.” The major sports broadcasting companies across the country promoted this campaign alongside their own celebrations of Black History Month. With players still taking a knee before kick-off, it seemed like football was finally uniting to confront the widespread racism that plagues its leagues.
But football’s fight for racial equality was at risk of handling anti-racism as a performative exercise. QPR’s Director of Football, Les Ferdinand, criticised the efforts of the English football leagues and said: “taking the knee will not bring about change in the game – actions will”, labelling the gesture “not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge.” Anti-racism campaigner, Christian Karembeu, who also won the World Cup with France, argued that these “slogans” and “mottos” are “obsolete.”
But now, after five months of developing the new initiative, the FA has taken a significant step in addressing the systemic racism that exists throughout football. Paul Elliott, the FA’s chair of the Inclusion Advisory Board, said: “positive and tangible action is required to drive change and take the next step. We believe the introduction of the Football Leadership Diversity Code will signal a long-term change for the English game.” But this should be the first of many steps for football; there is still lots to be done. Hopefully, this suggests there will be an increase in BAME representation not only in football, but in other walks of life too.
In a month that has seen Marcus Rashford become the nation’s hero over his free school meals campaign and Lewis Hamilton break Formula 1’s all-time win record, there has never been a better time to celebrate the contributions of black athletes within sport and throughout society. But as Black History Month draws to a close, celebrations cannot stop here. We must continue to not only celebrate but educate ourselves during the upcoming months and years in our fight for racial equality, in both sport and our wider society as well. The black squares that only a few months ago filled social media have slowly evaporated. We must push on from Black History Month and make tackling racism a permanent feature of our lives.