The key symbol of racism in football this week is not the handshake, it is the T-shirt. Jason Roberts has refused to wear his Kick It Out T-shirt this weekend in protest that the organisation has not done enough to combat racial discrimination in the sport. As the Reading striker told BBC Sport, “I’m totally committed to kicking racism out of football but when there’s a movement I feel represents the issue in the way that speaks for me and my colleagues, then I will happily support it…I think people feel let down by what used to be called ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’. People don’t feel like they have been strong enough.” Roberts’ announcement comes a week after David James castigated anti-racism groups for trying to justify their existence by exaggerating the issue. All in all, it has not been a good few days for Kick It Out.
The organisation may then have been grateful for Sir Alex Ferguson’s support. In a press conference today, the Manchester United manager criticised Roberts, saying that “I think he is making the wrong point…Everyone should be united, with all the players in the country wearing the Kick It Out warm-up tops…” He added: “I don’t know what point he is trying to make. I don’t know if he is trying to put himself on a different pedestal from everyone. But he really should be supporting all the rest of the players who are doing it…”When you do something, and everyone believes in it, you should all do it together. There shouldn’t be sheep wandering off. [My italics]”
Ferguson’s metaphor is an interesting one. Roberts would rather not be the sheep who blindly followed an orthodoxy he did not share. He would rather, one suspects, be the sheep that many argue that England’s Danny Rose should have been earlier this week, by walking off in the Under-21 game against Serbia after receiving racial abuse. Ferguson’s call for unity is a powerful and timely one, but it must be viewed against Roberts’ own frustration, which is overwhelming. His view is that football’s authorities have been too slow and too soft in dealing with the recent Suarez and Terry cases, and he believes Kick It Out to be primarily at fault.
I have worked with Kick It Out – whose name has been changed to address all forms of discrimination in football, not just racism – and I have found them to be a very smart, very diligent group. We worked together on a campaign to address homophobic chanting at football matches, and the experience was a revealing one, for two reasons. First, though they had a series of excellent ideas, they were working within very considerable constraints: they were only granted a small five-figure sum for a promotional video. Secondly, they were operating on something of a leash. That same video, carefully crafted with the assistance of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, was then pulled at the last moment by the FA, who were apparently worried about its controversial content. The only reason that the video ever saw the light of day was that it was leaked to BBC Newsnight.
Kick It Out therefore operate in an atmosphere of caution and confinement. As they have stated today, “certain myths and misinformation about Kick It Out’s remit have been laid down…We are not a decision-making organisation with power and resource as some people think, and can only work effectively in the context of these partnerships” [My italics].
The last sentence says it all. In its own words, it is “a small campaigning charity” working in partnership with football’s leading authorities. There are only seven of them. Last year they had a budget of just over £450,000, of which £330,000 (about 73%) was provided by the FA, the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Premier League. Kick It Out does not have the influence and independence to speak unbridled truth to power. Nor was it ever meant to. Roberts’ important contention is that the current system is ineffectual; the football’s governing authorities cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, and are in need of more robust checks and balances. Kick It Out are unfortunate in that their success in gaining visibility has made them the public emblem of all efforts to fight discrimination in football; and that they are thus the unlucky anvil on which Roberts has chosen to beat out his point.