Taking a Knee Is Important but Football Must Do More on Racial Equality
The Premier League has restarted with every player wearing a Black Lives Matter badge on his sleeve, and with those words replacing the names on their backs. At the start of each game every player, referee and member of staff has taken a knee. It has been incredibly powerful and moving and left me speechless, understanding that the eyes of the world were watching an unprecedented statement of unity against racism during what has been an unprecedented time.
As a symbolic gesture of support for the fight for racial equality it is a huge statement by the Premier League, for me the best league in the world and the strongest global football brand. But the gesture cannot distract us from the genuine work and significant change that still has to be done by the league and its clubs.
The fact is that 35% of the people on the pitch are black, but there is nowhere near the same percentage in executive, managerial or leadership positions. There are phrases that can be used to describe this situation that are heavy with politics and history, such as white privilege and white supremacy – but they accurately reflect the current situation in English football.
The old-fashioned stereotype of black men is that they are by nature strong, powerful athletes and the fact is that they are still not being trusted to manage budgets and people. These are ingrained prejudices and confronting them will be a lot more uncomfortable than sticking a badge on a sleeve, but without dealing with them the lack of diversity in Premier League dugouts and boardrooms will never change. The time to put the wheels of change into motion is now.
I believe in football meritocracy, but I also cannot accept that every single white person in a managerial or executive role in the game deserved to be appointed more than any single black person. There will be some people whose opportunities came because they are white and well connected. The statistics are embarrassing, and nothing will change unless what they reveal is accepted and confronted.
Last week the Professional Footballers’ Association released the results of an audit of the organisation, revealing precisely what proportion of employees at every level is black and calling on others to be equally transparent. Across the PFA about 30% of people are black and that’s the way it should be – the players’ union should reflect its membership. The Premier League should also reflect theirs.
I heard Jermain Defoe questioning whether it was worth him doing his coaching badges, because none of the black players he has looked up to in his life are working in management, leaving him feeling like the opportunities simply are not there for people like him. Gareth Southgate, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard walked into excellent coaching positions at the end of their playing careers, and while I would say they absolutely deserve them – they were great players and leaders, and would lose those jobs pretty quickly if they were failing – we must start confronting why black players find it so hard to take the same path.
The talent pool is enormous, and it isn’t just the 35% of players on Premier League pitches. Of the great Premier League managers of this century so far – Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger, José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp – most had unimpressive playing careers. Mourinho’s big break came as a translator, and I know there are intelligent black guys out there who can speak six languages and understand and love the game like Mourinho does. At what point do we also look beyond footballers? There will be fantastic black sports scientists and performance analysts, but if you’re not looking for a potential black Guardiola you’re not going to find one.
This is why I support something like the NFL’s Rooney rule. Put simply, no club should feel they must appoint a black manager, but they should be expected to engage with a wider range of people. There could be a target, perhaps that a third of candidates for managerial and executive roles have to come from black or other ethnic minority backgrounds. It’s not about handing anyone a job on a plate, it’s to do with fishing in a different sea to the one you’ve always fished in.
It is no different to the homegrown player rules, a quota that was brought in very quickly and without protest and had a massive impact: academy investment went up, academy managers felt it justified the work they were doing and were incentivised to work harder, young players at big clubs got more opportunities and recruitment practices changed. Now we need to create a policy that encourages the next generation of black coaches and executives to push themselves so they are competitive candidates when the time comes to go into management, rather than giving up because they don’t see the pathway.
Aston Villa, where I work as the sporting director for women’s football, are based in the most culturally diverse city in the country, and we have a chief executive in Christian Purslow who wants to engage that community. I am grateful for the position I’m in, and I would like to think I got the job based on a range of factors with the fact I am a black woman incidental, but the fact is I was given a fantastic opportunity, and I am now in a position to inspire another black person from the diverse community that we serve to go into football, or another club to take a chance on someone who doesn’t look the same as all the other sporting directors.
Nobody is asking for 20 black Premier League managers. I would just like to see a level of representation that is not embarrassing, that reflects the diversity on the pitch and the communities we serve across British society. The badge the players are wearing on their sleeves is not only a gesture of the Premier League’s solidarity, but also a signal that there is more work to do.
The Guardian Sport