It hasn’t felt that long since it last happened, but the old “racism in football” conversation has been forced to make another unwanted appearance. When the Manchester City player Raheem Sterling faced racial abuse live on TV at the hands of Chelsea fans, it again brought to light the systemic racism that blights the men’s professional game.
When this topic is brought up, it usually generates the same excuses and ways to explain it away - it’s just a bit of emotion taken too far; it’s just a small minority; get over it and move on. As more and more incidents pile up in recent times, those excuses are no longer good enough. It’s time to have a proper conversation about how and why racism still exists in football, and the steps we can take to put a stop to it.
Let’s get one thing straight here: despite what many might assume, racism in football is not on the decline. It is in fact the opposite from what statistics show, with anti-discrimination group Kick It Out reporting a rise in racist incidents in 2017-18 from the previous season and the Home Office also indicating increased arrests for racist chanting for the season. Of course, these stats could also be due to more people coming forward, but one only needs to take a cursory glance at the headlines of the past few months to see things are certainly not getting any better.
The incident with Sterling was the most prominent one in recent times, but it was far from the only one. It was only mere days beforehand that Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a banana thrown at him after scoring. And north of the border in our own Glasgow, a video emerged of Celtic player Scott Sinclair receiving racial abuse from an Aberdeen fan in the League Cup final at Hampden. These are not isolated incidents, but symptoms of a wider trend that cannot continue to be denied and downplayed.
Bananas on pitches and racial slurs from fans are a throwback to the 70s and 80s in British football, when it seemed like a black player could barely step foot on the pitch without receiving some form of abuse. At least, they should be a throwback - instead, they still remain our reality. How is this the case?
To truly understand the persistence of racism in football we must accept that racism in football never really went away. It only became muted. Once wider society took on the idea that you simply can’t say or do racist things anymore (cynics like to label this “political correctness”), it sat there, festering away. It is no coincidence that this decade, with its rise of far-right and anti-immigrant feeling, has enabled that racism once again. It is also worth noting that the far-right has attempted to use football and its fans as a vehicle for its own ends - for example, Tommy Robinson has recently aimed to insert himself into Scottish football, attempting to attend games and getting pictured in a Hearts top as a method of endearing himself to their fans. These should be called out for the cynical attempts they are to push football fans into far-right politics and racism.
Racism is not carried out simply by fans, however. Professional players have also been involved. Think of Luis Suarez, who was charged by the FA of racially abusing fellow player Patrice Evra. He received an eight-match ban and a fine for an offense most ordinary people would lose their job for. Similarly, John Terry was charged of abusing Anton Ferdinand and received a ban and a fine (as well as being stripped of the England captaincy). A recent case was the Dundee United player Jamie Robson, who dressed in a blackface costume at a party and the only thing that happened as a result was that he was sent to “diversity and inclusion training”. These mere slaps on the wrist are not good enough - if we want to get racism out of football, players must face real consequences for their actions, and they must also set a better example to fans. It is no wonder why fans can be openly racist when the professionals they watch are still declared “heroes” and “legends” despite being involved in racist incidents.
But how can ordinary fans make a difference to help stamp out racism in football? One way is to call it out wherever you see it, even if it may be amongst your own group of supporters. You can also assist organisations that are dedicated to stopping racism in football, such as the aforementioned Kick It Out or Show Racism the Red Card. Become a part of grassroots fan movements that make it their cause to stop racism, such as the Football Lads & Lasses Against Fascism. If we pull together and show racists that we will simply not accept their behaviour and attitudes, it could go a long way to finally putting to bed this evil that football has not rid itself of.