Occasionally, a number of otherwise unconnected events coincide to suddenly bring an issue right into the forefront of public concern. The topic of racism has become the centre of public debate, media coverage and that litmus paper of contemporary issues, Twitter.
That such incidents have occurred – or at least that complaints have been made about racial abuse – has made English football look again at its otherwise confident anti-racist consensus. From a sociological viewpoint, these events show how racism is often conceptualised as the result of individual prejudice; of a very small minority of individuals who aren’t willing or able to accept a ‘colour-blind’ approach to ‘race’ – that skin colour doesn’t and shouldn’t be a legitimate source of abuse or discrimination. Interestingly, these ‘abuse’ cases have come alongside a slow but growing murmuring – particularly among high-profile black players like Rio Ferdinand, a lot of the time through Twitter – that football’s anti-racist movement is starting to run out of steam. They point to issues like the continued absence of black managers, or British Asian players, or referees, or ethnic minority representation in the boardroom as evidence that all may not be as rosy as is often painted among those who run the game.
What has been most interesting in the last few days has been the responses of those in positions of power in the game. Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA – the international governing body for football – waded into the debate by claiming that racist abuse on the pitch between players should be ‘resolved by a handshake at the end of the game’, a widely covered comment by the media. His comments have been roundly criticised – Sport minister Hugh Roberston has called for his resignation – and he has hastily tried to ‘clarify’ his remarks. Even that icon of political neutrality and corporate darling, David Beckham, said Blatter’s comments were ‘appalling’. The FIFA President’s conceptualisation of racism is again interesting to analyse; he conflates racist abuse with the everyday banter and wind up that often characterises sport. His comments at the very least indicate the lack of understanding and knowledge of anti-racism among those at the very top of sport – and hint at the largely rhetorical promotion of race equality in sport.
Perhaps the final word should go to Dave Whelan, Chairman of Wigan FC, who felt it necessary to share his views on the recent ‘abuse’ cases. Whelan reportedly claimed that not only should players just ‘get on with it’ if they are subjected to racial abuse, but actually that they are ‘out of order’ in reporting such abuse and pressing charges against the perpetrators. If you examine Whelan’s comments closely, he reflects the confusions and contradictions of many when it comes to ideas of ‘race’; his reported comments suggest that sport is colour-blind, that is, that skin colour (i.e ‘race’) doesn’t matter in football. As such, he becomes outraged when someone claims that their ‘race’ does in fact matter to them, particularly when it is used as a form of abuse. This colour-blind approach also neglects the historical legacy of ideas of ‘race’; it de-politicises the issue to a simple descriptor of human difference, and fails to recognise that ideas of ‘race’ continue to be a source of social inequality – embedded in both sport and society.
- Damian Pickard
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