Why we... want football to be more radical on racism

August 31, 2001

Since the advent of the Premiership in 1992, English football has undergone a vast transformation. The game seems to dominate popular culture in a manner that it never has before and, despite regular predictions that "the bubble will burst", seems to go from strength to strength. A central feature of this transition has been the development of a series of anti-racist campaigns and measures designed to rid the game of racist chanting. Many of the campaigns have been small-scale grassroots activities organised by supporters themselves. There have also been high-profile campaigns against racism, such as Let's Kick Racism Out of Football, often enthusiastically embraced by football clubs, which have encouraged their players and managers to make public statements against racism.

During the same period, there has been a widespread decline, although not elimination, of racist abuse and harassment inside football grounds, just as there has been a decline in other forms of crime and violence associated directly with the sport. It seems that football has, to borrow a phrase, "turned on a sixpence" from a situation in which the issue of racism was largely denied by those involved in the game to one in which the game proudly proclaims its anti-racist credentials.

So, why do we argue that more critical analysis of the impact of anti-racism is needed? First, because the work that has been done to tackle racism within the game has been more closely related to broader efforts to tackle hooliganism, and confronts racism only inasmuch as it overlaps with this problem. Second, the anti-racist agenda has been seriously limited, and there is little evidence to show that the notion of "institutional racism", so widely debated in other contexts, has been understood by those responsible for running the national game.

While campaigns have sought to change the culture of football supporting, so that the expression of racism is no longer considered a routine aspect of fandom, there has been little evaluation of the extent to which these have been responsible for a decline in certain forms of racism. Other factors may have contributed to a decline in abuse and harassment, the most likely of which are related to the widespread efforts to combat disorderly behaviour of various types. The prohibition of racist chanting at football matches was enacted by legislation that was generally framed to deal with problems of hooliganism, suggesting perhaps that the authorities are concerned with the former only when it seems to contribute to wider problems of disorder.

Also, whereas eight or nine years ago football seemed to provide a context for some of the most innovative anti-racist campaigns, this now seems to have been left behind while debates about the nature and form of racism have moved on in wider society. Many argued that the Football Task Force, set up in 1997, would be little more than a talking shop, lacking power. The first topic it explored was racism within the game, its report on this providing a thorough and detailed exposition of the nature of institutional racism within the sport.

The cynics, though, seem to have been proved right, since little serious progress has been made to tackle the lack of representation of minority ethnic communities in boardrooms, among coaching staff or among the administrators and staff of the football industry. Despite the progress of recent years, there is a need for a broader, more thoroughgoing approach. If football is to remain the nation's favourite game, full of cultural and social significance, then it has to ensure that it becomes broadly representative of our diverse society.

Jon Garland and Michael Rowe
Scarman Centre University of Leicester

Racism and Anti-racism in Football , by Jon Garland and Michael Rowe, is published by Palgrave, price £14.99.

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