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Football Needs Institutional Change If Racism Is To Be Eradicated

After yet more high-profile racist incidents in football recently, Ben explains why deeper change is needed if proper progress is to be made.

AFC Bournemouth v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

It was going to happen at some point. The only surprise was that it happened on the first weekend when fans were legally allowed back into stadiums to watch their beloved teams play. It wasn’t a surprise that it happened where it happened, but it was surprising that it happened while, in theory, their most loyal and consistent fans were in attendance.

I’m talking of course about Millwall and the disgraceful behaviour of some their, well, people on Saturday afternoon as their team hosted Derby County.

Before I continue any further, this article won’t be about those specimens’ actions: they have already had enough coverage this week and are no doubt wearing that around their little hovels like a badge of honour. And yes, I am white, probably middle class (I’ve been called worse) and am in a privileged position because I have a platform for my opinions that are supported by like-minded people who wholeheartedly backed me in writing this. I also want you to know that I’m not innocent - and no, I’m not a racist. But I always say to my own children and the children I teach (yep, I’m a teacher) that if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

So what the hell are you doing, Ben? I can hear you now. And you’re right, what am I doing? What is anyone doing, actually? What is the point of taking the knee if f-all changes? What’s the point of being outraged if the thing that outraged you still exists? As I said earlier, I couldn’t care less about Millwall. Anyone who’s ever been there won’t be surprised by their fans’ treatment of anyone, actually.

Even their own fans turn on each other like it’s some sort of mini-Viking revival - except they don’t cut off the heads of their enemies because they don’t have the bottle. Instead, they target people who don’t have a voice in society. And as I said, I don’t want to focus on them. I want to focus on those idiots who currently occupy the positions of power in our glorious game. Not by name. But by nature. Yeah, I’m talking about The FA.

They claim to abhor any sort of discrimination. Indeed, they spend millions of pounds a year advertising their campaigns against inequalities, supporting the ‘Kick It Out’ scheme (and it is a scheme), fining players for tweets and the like, but what are they actually doing? They are an archaic, faceless joke of an organisation. Let’s look at a few incidents in isolation.

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Reading v Charlton Athletic - Madejski Stadium

Suarez & Evra. Now, that was back and forth. Yeah, The FA banned Luis Suarez. They fined him. They took Patrice Evra seriously. But when the Liverpool team turned up the next week wearing t-shirts in support of their Uruguayan hit man, what happened? If memory serves, nothing. You don’t get banned from the game for an error, do you? But yet they were quite happy to allow the same group of players to wear ‘Kick It Out’ t-shirts in the same season.

Suarez came back into the side. He was lauded as great player (and he was). But what actually changed in that instance? People were outraged when Evra didn’t shake his hand in the next game against the teams. Let bygones be bygones. Not that easy when someone has abused you like that.

Fast forward a bit and Kiki Casilla of Leeds United is banned for eight matches for racially abusing Jonathan Leko of Charlton Athletic. He got slapped with a £60k fine too. No special edition Air Jordans for you this week, mate! He serves his time, he comes up with some half-baked excuse about not knowing the term existed (you used it pal, in anger too) and gets straight back into the team as captain, wearing a BLM shirt. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this is that the club still a) employed him and b) kept him as captain.

Now, my compass may be well off here, but I’ve offered to drive some of our previous captains to different clubs over the years over a misplaced pass. A misplaced pass! The captain is the face of the club. I don’t care what anyone says, he has to be. This chap not only broke every sporting code in the book, but worse, he effectively said to his supporters: “Hey, be racist - you’ll still get paid”.

Let’s discuss another, more well-known captain.

At the time, this chap was the England one. You might know him. He’s done quite well after abusing a black player. Still a coach, no doubt got some sly little sponsorships on the go. He got a four-game ban for his actions against QPR back in 2011. The damaging effect of this can be viewed fully in the recent BBC documentary ‘Football, Racism and Me’. It’s compelling viewing for all the wrong reasons.

I had the pleasure of meeting Anton Ferdinand a few times when he played for us and he was lovely, well spoken, thoughtful and genuine. I can’t imagine living with the idea that he’d been abused for the colour of his skin, something that he clearly kept under wraps for a long time. What John Terry did to Ferdinand was not only racist and appalling, it was also an absolute abuse of his power at the time.

John Terry arrives at Westminster Magistrates court in July 2012 for his trial on charges of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand
Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages

That’s just three examples. Oh, sorry. I forgot Bulgaria too. The game against England made me physically sick to the point where I turned the game off. And yet, as a nation, they are still competing. They are still allowed to qualify for all the major tournaments, in theory representing the sport of football on the biggest stages of all. And I suppose, my frustration with all this goes back to the authorities.

Of course, authorities don’t make racists. Other people make racists. It’s learnt behaviour. I know this because I’ve seen it first hand in the job that I do and how the kids respond to events and other people around them and in their lives. Children are not capable of disliking other children because of the colour of their face. It’s taught behaviour and I don’t care what anyone says. My actual kids (who are five) don’t watch something on TV and go “oh, he’s got a black face”. They just don’t see it.

And it’s not a football problem, it’s a societal problem. Football is the absolute cross section of the population - or should be anyway. Men, women, non-binary humans and children of all races, backgrounds and sexual persuasions should be able to go through a turnstile and not be abused, offended or made to feel uncomfortable. That’s a human right by the way, not an idealistic way of thinking.

And yeah, our fans aren’t angels. I’ve seen some lads smash up a pub in Brentford. I’ve seen some chaps chuck some coins around at Preston. God, I’ve ever seen a bloke get chucked out of the Dolan for shouting “dickhead”. But I have never, ever seen or heard any sort of racist abuse from our fans. I’m not saying there aren’t racist Reading fans, but I am saying that they don’t turn up at the Berkshire Stadium and shout racist abuse at players - because they know it won’t be tolerated. People have been banned from that place for much, much less.

“Alright Ben, you self-righteous idiot, what do you want then?” Proper sanctions my dear reader. Don’t fine the guilty player. Don’t ban the fan. Let’s think blue sky here. If someone, anyone, is willing to be racially abusive, let’s actually challenge it head on. Deduct points from teams if their fans are guilty of racial abuse. Immediate sackings for players who use racist language and a year (or longer) ban from finding a new club and playing again. We do it in “real life”, so why not in football?

The most ridiculous aspect of this weekend is that The FA are “investigating” the incident at Millwall. What is there to investigate?! You can bloody hear it! At one point, someone shouts “get up”. There was 2,000 spectators in the stadium - it can’t be that hard to identify the perpetrators, surely?

Marcus Rashford has proved with his school meal campaign that footballers have real power. It’s a powerful sport and one of this country’s biggest exports. I would be in full support of any player who went on strike until something serious was levelled against these aggressors. They do it in the NFL over pay and conditions, let alone skin colour. Let’s stop pretending that the authorities are doing something and supporting all these initiatives. Let’s stop letting these things go unchallenged. Let’s stop letting racists off the hook.

As I close this article out, I’m watching Demba Ba calmly but purposefully asking a fourth official why he is referring to one his coaches as “the black guy”. He’s explaining that he wouldn’t do that for a white guy. UEFA will tell us that it’s a miscommunication or that something has been lost in translation. They’ll also say there’s no harm done, but just in case, they’ll fine the official £10,000 and ask him to spend some time with orphans or similar, which they will splash all over their social media page.

Others might argue that it’s just naivety or “casual racism”. But, you know, if casual racism is even a thing, it’s probably the worst kind. That deep-seated, rarely exposed hatred that, when the mask slips, falls out of a mouth like a rotten apple from a dying tree. Ancient and twisted and deformed and hideous. Either way, this fella should, in theory, never officiate again. But you and I both know he will. So all of us have to keep pushing this and supporting it and keep talking about it and keep doing something about it.

And if all we have right now is taking a knee and actively cheering the players for doing so, then so be it. Because those cheers are louder than the boos. That love is mightier than the hate. And at some point, in some far-off distant land, we won’t have to talk about this anymore. And that’ll be a wonderful day.