Close your eyes and picture growing up in poverty with a lack of opportunities. Even with your eyes open, it’s difficult to understand if you’ve never witnessed it or gone through this yourself.
Growing up in south London, I always wanted to be a footballer. But maybe that was because besides a career in music, that was the only measure of wealth and success in our community – you never saw black people on television otherwise. A lack of male role models at home and in wider society able to provide guidance and teach you the fundamentals as a young boy or girl was and is an issue too.
I was lucky enough to become a professional with Crystal Palace before moving to Lincoln. But what happens to the 99% that leave academies and eventually fall out of the game without having a plan B in terms of another career path to follow? The streets will welcome you with both arms if you don’t have any alternative and are looking for a quick way to earn money.
People who end up taking that route are bound by brotherhoods that end up being your safety net. Last year, one of my friend’s brothers was killed on the street and that is something you can never escape if you come from that kind of background – even if you end up playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world you are still only a phone call away from bad news.
When I was a professional, some players with the same background as me were given labels because of their lives off the pitch. If you have come from a single-parent family it will always be harder to learn about authority and sometimes I think clubs don’t know how to deal with the issues. I’ll always remember one teammate who came into training one day and told the manager that some people had fired a gun at his house the night before. He was just told to go home and forget about it but really should have been given some kind of support. Now he is serving a 15-year prison sentence, so you can see how quickly things can spiral out of control.
In 2014, Michael Boateng and I were convicted of conspiracy to commit bribery relating to match-fixing and given lifetime bans from football. I also served four months of a 16-month sentence in prison and acknowledge that I made mistakes, even if after two trials the courts found no matches were actually fixed.
Since coming out of prison, I’ve been running workshops instigated jointly by the PFA, the Football Association and the Premier League as part of the FA’s integrity program which are compulsory for top-flight academies. Everyone working at the Premier League’s integrity and educational departments is white, as are the majority of the staff members. But how many are able to go into clubs and have the effect that I can? The young players only listen to me because they can relate to what I have been through.
It’s the same at the FA and PFA – how many black, Asian and other minorities who are able to relate culturally and communicate are working in their integrity departments? In order to better understand and fully empower diversity, inclusion needs to be spread across each and every sector. If football has a unique power to effect change and improve lives then why does nothing change in the boardrooms?
Black players are also always stereotyped with this idea that we are strong or can run fast and I think that is down to society but also the lack of representation in the higher levels of the game. We are now living in a generation where young people are more advanced than when I was growing up but doors are still kept shut for black, Asian and other minorities. Young black England internationals are thriving in the Premier League and beyond but you rarely hear the importance and emergence of black agents who have pioneered and broken barriers to keep young aspiring footballers on the correct path.
The media certainly has to take part of the blame. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve picked up a newspaper or read something online over the past few years which has contributed to that negative stereotype. Given the number of people who read what are some of the country’s biggest publications every day, it’s probably no surprise so many feel empowered to express their racist views on social media or at a match.
By no means is this a cry for sympathy – more a harsh reality about growing up and seeing the only environment we know. But how is society and football able to understand what black players are going through with racism and discrimination if there’s a lack of communication with those who can make changes?
It’s taken a global tragedy for society to recognize finally the issues on race and equality, with football players taking a leading role. Hopefully now those in charge of the country will start to take note as well.
The Guardian Sport