Two recent events in European football have highlighted the continued spectre of discrimination in the game. In July, the president-elect of the Italian football federation, Carlo Tavecchio, lamented the influx of foreign players in the Italian game. In the process, he suggested that Italy welcomed any African player who previously only “ate bananas”.
In England, a more insidious range of allegations has surfaced after an investigation by Cardiff City and its Malaysian owner Vincent Tan into two former employees; manager Malky Mackay and director of football, Iain Moody. As part of this investigation, it has been alleged that Mackay and Moody exchanged a range of racist, homophobic and sexist text messages. In particular, these comments were directed at agents. They made sexually suggestive comments about one female agent. The sexuality of one male agent was questioned, another was subject to Jewish slurs, while they lamented the number of black players put forward by another.
This follows hot on the heels of revelations that the chief executive of the English Premier League, Richard Scudamore, was sharing a range of sexist jokes and emails. Meanwhile, at Sky Sports, the sexism scandal that cost former presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys their jobs, highlighted the misogynistic culture that continues to exist behind the scenes.
The League Managers’ Association – effectively the football managers' trade union – reinforced this culture when it issued a statement in support of Mackay. It defended the former Cardiff manager’s actions by stating that this was “some friendly text message banter” and that it was “to let off steam” when “under great pressure”. Somehow they seem to be absolving discriminatory actions on the grounds of being under pressure. As football management is an intensely pressured job, does this justify discrimination at all times? Of course not.
The emotional appeal and apparent simplicity of football ensures that it is open to the widest possible audience. It leads to a various interpretations and provides a vehicle for a variety of forms of identification. Eric Dunning and Norbert Elias suggest that sport is “mimetic”. It provides a “quest for excitement”. These emotions are not different from elsewhere, just “transposed in a different key”. All sport does is reflect the wider society around it. If racism is taking place in football, it is because racism exists in wider society. If politicians and the president-elect of the Italian football federation make racist comments, don’t be surprised if ultras in the stadium make similar comments.
The general narrative within football is that racism has been eliminated. Partly this is due to the hard work from all parties (fans, clubs, players, federations, politicians, and media) to eliminate the vocal expression of racism in the stadium, more often than not by fans. Yet when racist incidents occur, as they did with John Terry and Luis Suárez, they are seen as aberrations. As my colleague Daniel Burdsey has argued, racism in football is now seen as “an individual, privatised matter rather than emanating from within the game’s institutions and structures”.
Too often, accusations of discrimination have focused on public expressions of racism, particularly by fans, or structural racism that legally permits exclusion. It has not focused on the systemic racism that pervades organisations. As the McPherson Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence argued, the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”; this was “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”.
Mackay and Moody’s texts highlight the culture that pervades powerful organisations and this is just as discriminatory as the expressions of fans. Such “banter” is not neutral. It perpetuates negative stereotypes and reinforces a culture of exclusion.
Indeed, much of the hard work to tackle discrimination in football has come from the fans themselves. In England, independent supporters associations and trusts have made anti-discrimination central to their work. Fans have established organisations, such as Kick It Out, Show Racism the Red Card, and Football v Homophobia. Maybe if the football authorities permitted fans greater access to the governance of the sport, their progressive influence could tackle the attitude of those who run the game.
Discrimination continues in the corridors of power. Fans have traditionally been the scapegoats. While the authorities pat each other on the back for challenging discrimination, they fail to notice or even acknowledge their own behaviour and its contribution. If fans are at the vanguard of challenging discrimination, this is yet another reason why they should have a say in the governance of the sport.