The story is now so well-known that I will not dwell on it too long. Yesterday, Rio Ferdinand, in defiance of his manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s wishes, refused to wear a Kick It Out T-shirt. His refusal was due to the fact that he, like his fellow protester Jason Roberts, felt that football’s authorities were not doing enough to combat racism within the game. Since Kick It Out – whose work is tireless, but whose remit and influence is sorely limited – derives the overwhelming majority of its funding from the FA, the PFA and the Premier League, Ferdinand identified them as the symbol of his discontent. Ferguson spoke afterwards of his embarrassment at Ferdinand’s refusal to toe the party line, and of his intention to punish Ferdinand. Whether that punishment will take the form of a fine or a fierce talking-to is still anyone’s guess.
A widespread view is that Ferguson – who, it must be noted, steadfastly supported Ferdinand throughout the Terry case – has got this call wrong, in that he has put his own pride ahead of Ferdinand’s anger at the FA’s perceived weakness in dealing with prejudice. I will add two points here.
First, the protest that Roberts and Ferdinand are making appears to be against the enabling of racism by football’s institutions. That is a far more difficult animal to tackle than racism from the crowds. A monkey chant is readily identifiable by audio or video. It is easy, comforting and cathartic to unite against the monkey chanter because the monkey chanter is outside football. He or she is in the crowd and can simply and summarily be excluded from the game. But what – and here is the more uncomfortable question – if there are those in senior positions in the game who actively or passively enable racist behaviour? Joleon Lescott has not worn a Kick It Out T-Shirt since 2007, when he was at Everton. This is not because he is angry at racist chanting from the crowds. This is because he felt that the authorities should have been stronger in dealing with Emre, the Turkey midfielder then at Newcastle United, who allegedly directed racist abuse at Joseph Yobo, Lescott’s fellow defender. In this case, for which Lescott provided written evidence, Emre escaped punishment. Lescott has found far less support or publicity for his stance than those who support the wearing of Kick It Out T-Shirts. But it may be that his stance is of equal importance. What is more, given that football is a self-regulating sport, there is no organisation with the independence to defend his position tirelessly.
Secondly, it is notable that high-profile black and mixed-race players, either still playing or as pundits, are themselves divided over the T-shirt controversy. Viv Anderson, the first black footballer to play for England, and Ian Wright believe that no-one should have boycotted the T-shirt. David James, whilst criticising the “anti-racism industry”, believes that the FA were too slow to deal with the John Terry affair, particularly in the light of the revelation by the Crown Prosecution Service that they did not delay the FA from taking speedier proceedings against John Terry.
I wonder whether there is something of a generational divide between Britain’s ethnic minority footballers: between the older guard, who remember racism as being far more overt and shocking, and the younger crowd, who have emerged into a world where most of football’s demons with regards to race have been swept aside (or, cynically speaking, under the carpet). I wonder whether the older guard look at the younger group of protesters and think, “it was far worse in my day; toe the line and build on the advances that we painstakingly made.” And I wonder whether the younger ones think, “yes, but we have more freedom today to say what you couldn’t. The time for biting our lips is past”.
The older guard would have had to deal with colleagues who were initially either racist or ignorant but who have over time become loved or trusted friends. They would have had to help these colleagues to work through their prejudices, a process that would have taken great patience and which in any case would have been necessary for the furtherance of their careers. As Bob Hazell, the former professional footballer for Wolves, Leicester, QPR and Port Vale tweeted earlier today, “me & my generation spoke about ‘ignoring it’ and ‘it inspires us to play better’. We never spoke of feeling hurt devalued and fucking angry.’” Back then, that was just the way things were. They had to compromise. The younger crowd would have grown up in a world where racism was not the norm, it was abhorrent, and so are more confident to call it out. They have not had to compromise nearly so much. In that context, why should they engage in what they see, quite literally, as an exercise in window-dressing?