The intervention by Alex Ferguson on the issue of racism in football this past weekend has been atrocious. First he saw fit to criticise Reading’s Jason Roberts at his Friday press conference for announcing that he would refuse to wear the t-shirt of the FA’s anti-racism campaign, Kick It Out, prior to Reading’s game on Saturday. Then, after Man Utd’s game against Stoke, he laid into his own captain Rio Ferdinand for doing the same. Both bespeak a football manager and a man woefully out of touch with the seriousness of an issue that over the past two years has returned to the game after a prolonged period of relative progress.
Rio Ferdinand is not some recalcitrant child who needs to be “dealt with” by anyone for daring to make a stance on an issue which for him, as a black footballer, clearly cuts deep. Nor does Fergie’s role as the manager of Manchester United extend to him having the right to control his or indeed any other player’s conscience. The spectacle of an elderly white man lambasting one of his black players for exercising that conscience was unedifying to say the least. Alex Ferguson has never experienced racism, hasn’t grown up with it, nor has he ever had to endure its dehumanising impact. And so when he claimed in a post-match interview that Rio Ferdinand had embarrassed him by not wearing the Kick It Out t-shirt, he was wrong. On the contrary, Ferguson embarrassed himself with his crude and insensitive response.
The John Terry saga and the manner of its handling by the FA and the game in general have covered English football in shame. The leniency of Terry’s eventual sanction by the FA – in the shape of a four game ban and a £220,000 fine (around a week’s pay) for calling Anton Ferdinand a “black cunt” during a heated exchange in a match between Chelsea and QPR last season – was bad enough. Worse has been the support the Chelsea captain has been given up to now by his club and by two England national team coaches – Fabio Capello, who resigned over Terry being stripped of the England captaincy prior to the Euros this summer, and latterly Roy Hodgson, who opted to select Terry for the same tournament while voicing his support for the Chelsea skipper; this despite the cloud hanging over him. Taken together this had the effect of portraying Terry as the victim in this affair rather than the opposite, as is the case.
Racism is of course not solely a football problem. It’s a societal problem of which football is its most public symptom. This is why it is so crucial that when it emerges in the game it is dealt with seriously and without any attempt at equivocation or sympathy towards those guilty of propagating or normalising it. People are still murdered in Britain for no other reason than the colour of their skin, and if kids see so-called role models such as a former captain of the England football team continuing to be supported by leading figures in the game when TV footage clearly shows him mouthing racial abuse at a fellow professional (Alex Ferguson it should be noted not among them) and then see a leading black player being taken to task by his manager for daring to stand up against the fact the authorities have not dealt with either the player or issue seriously enough, then all it does is reinforce the need to take that stand by Ferdinand and the other black premiership players who did likewise prior to the weekend’s games in refusing to wear the Kick It Out t-shirt during their pre-match warm-up.
Since the seventies and eighties, when racism at football grounds up and down the country was endemic and black players were routinely victim to the kind of abuse we were sadly reminded of last week during the England’s U-21 match against Serbia in Krusevac, there has been significant progress when it comes to racism in football. But that is no reason for complacency, as we saw with the Luis Suarez incident involving Man Utd’s Patrice Evra and the insensitivity shown by then Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish in response, and then John Terry’s abuse of Anton Ferdinand and how it’s been swept under the carpet by the FA.
On a structural level, despite the fact that black and non-white players are ubiquitous within the game, the same cannot be said when it comes to coaches, managers and officials. How many members of the current FA executive are black or from non-white backgrounds? To ask this question is to answer it. The same is true when it comes to the number of black or non-white managers and coaches. These are statistics that do not reflect the racial mix of British society and thereby constitute evidence of a culture that has to be addressed if the sport is to progress and racism in the game fully expunged.
Alex Ferguson’s remarks on Rio Ferdinand are reflective of this culture, of an attitude which holds that to elderly white men such as he and members of the sport’s governing body should devolve the right and responsibility of setting the parameters of ‘acceptable’ forms of tackling the issue of racism in football. He’s wrong. This right and responsibility belongs to those who suffer racism and not to those, like him, who do not.
If anyone needs to be “dealt with” it is those dinosaurs who would lambast the victims of racism for refusing to know their place. Indeed, rather than be “dealt with”, Rio Ferdinand and his fellow black professionals should be applauded for refusing to continue to participate in the charade of Kick It Out.