The year 2020 will be remembered for so many different and difficult reasons. We have been stopped in our tracks, and many a carefree attitude has been jolted. And a year-long season in unprecedented circumstances has led to the shortest of breaks. But football is back.
In the US, the killing of Breonna Taylor in her own home, closely followed by George Floyd’s senseless killing, witnessed a surge towards the Black Lives Matter movement. People from different backgrounds and colors have protested about the social injustices that have continued to blight the very existence of black and brown people. These protests are not a new thing, they just seem to be carrying more weight and spread globally, with the realization from sporting figures that their voices carry so much strength and are waiting to be heard.
The cowardly shooting of Jacob Blake was the final straw to ignite a reaction from US sport as boycotts of matches took place, alongside powerful statements and reactions. Those players have had enough. American sports stars and their allies are standing in solidarity and globally we need to be there with them, not just with our own words but constructively with our own actions.
News outlets were reporting almost in a state of shock but we have been left in shock every single time a life of one of our own has been taken and not protected. We have started to recall our experiences as black people, and our stories are too similar. We are empowered, we are growing in strength, we have become unified.
And therein lies the problem for those that have sat comfortably for far too long. You hear the whispers: “It’s enough now, let’s get back to how it was, they’ve had their say.” There are still many who want things to remain as they were, history to be untouched, privilege to stand where it’s always stood.
Before lockdown, the 2019-20 season was yet again one of those where black players were constantly victimized for being black and good at what they do, at all levels of the game. From Romelu Lukaku in Cagliari, to Mario Balotelli from Lazio fans, to Shakhtar Donetsk’s Taison sent off for reacting to racist abuse, to England’s black players being abused in Bulgaria. From Tom Loizou, the manager of Haringey Borough, taking his team off the field in an FA Cup tie after racist abuse; to Jonathan Leko from West Brom, who had to wait almost six months to prove what he knew he’d heard from a Leeds player was trusted by the game. Or Cyrus Christie of Fulham, whose sister was hit and racially abused in the stands while he was playing; or the abuse targeting Theo Robinson, then of Southend, with his family there. Even after lockdown the winner of the Premier League’s official fantasy league had to be stripped of his title for comments about a player in a “private” online group.
But there are a good many who are listening and learning, understanding and appreciating. So here are my hopes and dreams for the season ahead.
I want a game where the black voice can be heard and respected alongside their white counterparts. Where a woman’s voice can be as powerful as man’s voice.
Where judgment is based on the content and the nature of an individual, not on their color, background or faith. Where we can challenge without fear and feel a wave of support rather than be damned.
Where “equal” means we appreciate difference and we will accept all that it brings. Where fans need not fear supporting their teams because the game is truly for all. Where the game unites from top to bottom, from the grassroots to the Premier League.
We all cannot wait for fans to return to stadiums. The talk around Black Lives Matter will continue – it must. My hope is that the taking of the knee will also continue into the new season, and it will set the tone of zero tolerance in its message. That is controversial for some and if social media is anything to go by, there are those who are prepared to give up season tickets if the players and clubs do that in their presence. A minority of FC Dallas fans recently booed their own players for kneeling during the national anthem before an MLS game. Surely, we can expect better.
The FA’s equality in football leadership code, which is due sometime in October, has been designed to improve the diversity at clubs. The code will be voluntary, and I must admit I’m always slightly wary of any title that has voluntary as its standout feature in this day and age. I’m wondering how many more voluntary programs must be run before we finally get the better representation we crave. But let’s await the launch of the code before we judge.
Grouping together footballers as “BAME” is another bone of contention for me. If I ask about black managers and coaches, I don’t want joint figures on black, Asian and minority ethnic coaches. If I want to understand the lack of pathways for Asian players, I don’t want figures for black players – I want to understand and appreciate from an Asian person and player’s perspective. Who are we describing as minority ethnic in football, because that seems to just be everyone else? We deserve clarity.
Another issue that cannot continue in the same vein as it did last season is the targeted abuse on social media. The likes of Ian Wright and Wilfried Zaha have recently exposed the horrendous direct messages they have received. The age of the individuals makes me wonder, where all that hate comes from. The platforms were often slow to react and sometimes just ignored them – those same platforms who were very quick to posts statements in support of Black Lives Matter statements.
The Premier League has launched its own reporting system for players, managers, coaches and their family members who receive discriminatory online abuse and to see it highlighted and actioned for abuse received by Brighton’s Neal Maupay recently is the kind of progress that has been much needed.
At Kick It Out we are also working alongside a company called Signify, who as well as highlighting users, can track a user’s online history and link them to their previous transgressions. All of this must be a positive as football is at the forefront of driving hate off these platforms or at the very minimum holding the perpetrators accountable.
Let’s be proactive, open, honest and provide solutions to where we have failed and let’s look to fail no more. No excuses. With the power of the game we can unite, there are so many of us who believe. But the game needs to trust and believe in us.
Troy Townsend is head of development at Kick It Out.
The Guardian Sport