Greg Clarke former FA Chairman Greg Clarke former FA Chairman. Photo: Kane Brooker / Wikicommons / cropped original image / licensed under CC 4.0, linked at bottom of article

Following the resignation of FA chairman Greg Clarke for racist comments, Tony Dowling looks at how football’s governing bodies are letting black players down

For a brief period following the racist murder of George Floyd by police in the US on 25th May, it seemed like Black Lives Mattered to football, including to its governing bodies. In a statement issued on 30 June, the FA said,

“We stand alongside the players, clubs, Premier League, EFL, PFA, LMA, PFMOL and all those who have come together in recent weeks to reject racism and to show support for the message that Black Lives Matter”

And after the restart of football following the break due to the coronavirus pandemic, banners were prominently displayed at grounds, taking the knee was ubiquitous before kick-offs and players wore badges endorsing Black Lives Matter for all nine match days. 

But it didn’t take long for the normality of institutional racism to reassert itself.

When the new 2020-21 season began on Saturday 12th September the Black Lives Matter message was banished, to be replaced by the far less assertive ‘No Room For Racism’.

As The Times columnist Hugh Woozencroft noted:

“It’s erasure. It’s evidence of the systemic racism that Black Lives Matter was created to fight. It clearly still isn’t an issue that football feels any passionate need to address, though.”

And as though choreographed to prove the point, last week up stepped Greg Clarke, FA chairman – it’s always a chair ‘man’ of course, a white man – with just the latest in a sadly long line of examples of institutional racism. 

Appearing in front of the government’s digital, culture, media and sport select committee hearing, to discuss the current crisis of funding and governance within football, Clarke used racist, sexist and homophobic terms.

There was universal astonishment and disbelief that someone in such a high profile position in an organisation supposedly committed to diversity should make an outrageous series of offensive remarks, referring to “coloured footballers”, to the “different career interests” of people from ethnic minorities, describing being gay as a “life choice” and saying young girls were put off because they did not want to be hit hard by footballs.

Clarke rightly resigned, but simply issued the usual half-hearted statement we have come to expect in these circumstances which didn’t even include the word apology:

“I am deeply saddened that I have offended those diverse communities in football that I and others worked so hard to include.”

Shockingly, the FA has also not apologised, simply publishing Clarke’s statement and reiterating that “we are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to promote diversity, address inequality, and tackle all forms of discrimination in the game.”

And FA CEO Mark Bullingham commented:

“We respect his decision and are clear that his words simply do not reflect the views of the FA, our people and the organisation we are today. We are committed to playing a lead role in actively enhancing equality and diversity across English football, whilst steadfastly challenging and tackling all forms of discrimination.”

Sadly, these words ring hollow since, if genuine, someone like Clarke would never have been appointed chairman. As former England & Arsenal footballer Ian Wright said, the FA cannot be trusted to pick the right person for the FA chairman position:

“I don’t trust the people upstairs to make that decision, considering Greg Clarke got where he was. It should be someone who can grasp the actual intricacies of the job.”

Racism in football is nothing new, of course, but the governing bodies make a lot of noise about what they have done and are doing. ‘We stand firm against all types of discrimination,’ they say, and claim to ‘have made substantial progress in these areas.’ And they promote high profile campaigns like Kick it Out, Respect and the latest No Room for Racism, whilst little is done to combat the overt racism suffered by black players in the game.

Only last year Manchester City player Raheem Sterling was personally abused by opposition fans during a game. The fans were identified and banned from future attendance, but Sterling has called on football authorities to do more to protect players, particularly in international games where, despite all the game’s initiatives, racism seems to be becoming more, not less prevalent. He feels UEFA and other football bodies should do more to punish national authorities in instances of racism because it shouldn’t be up to individual players to walk off.

In 2012, after the high-profile cases of racism on the pitch by Luis Suarez and John Terry, David Cameron’s government pretended to care about racism and boosted campaigns like Show Racism the Red Card and Let’s Kick Racism out of Football. This was while his government was in the process of setting up a hostile environment.

Eight years on and the shameful comments of Clarke, the retreat from Black Lives Matter by the FA, and the continuing battle faced by black players point to a continuing failure by football’s governing bodies, both nationally and internationally. 

Just as the challenge to racism in society points to the failure of governments and elites everywhere and the need to mobilise from the ground up, so too in football. We all need to support and build the Black Lives Matter movement to rid ourselves of the rotten head of racism in all aspects of society.

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Tony Dowling

Tony Dowling is a teacher, socialist, trade unionist, antifascist, anti-war & anti-cuts activist. He is currently chair of North East People's Assembly and a member of Counterfire.

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