Big Ron attends race awareness classes in attempt to rebuild his television career

The disgraced football pundit Ron Atkinson is crossing the Atlantic to restore his reputation.
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The Independent Online

Ron Atkinson, the disgraced football pundit and former manager, has been sent to race awareness classes in an attempt to restart his stalled television career.

Mr Atkinson, a distinctive figure with his chunky gold jewellery and brash opinions, caused astonishment and anger earlier this year when he described French football star Marcel Desailly as a "lazy thick nigger" on air, comments which saw him immediately ditched from lucrative TV and newspaper contracts.

But his rehabilitation is under way already, only six months since the broadcast that caused so much offence. This month he is back on screen, starring in a BBC documentary along with black former footballers Carlton Palmer and John Barnes, and political commentator Darcus Howe, a prominent critic.

Provisionally entitled Big Ron - Am I a Racist?, the show takes Mr Atkinson to the Deep South of the US where he is filmed discussing the great civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King and attending classes designed to counter discrimination. He also visits memorials to slavery and to the racial segregation that King helped to abolish.

Mr Atkinson yesterday confirmed that he had taken part in the programme and attended race awareness classes after an approach by the BBC. He was willing to give few details ahead of the broadcast, saying only "we looked at the Martin Luther King situation". He refused to say if the programme had altered his opinions. But it is understood that in one con- versation on camera he complained at being treated unfairly, pointing out that the footballer Paul Gascoigne had not lost his job despite admitting to beating up his wife. He also complains that ITV, the company which forced him to resign, then invited him on to I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, an invitation he is thought to have refused.

Typically race awareness classes in the US involve elements of role-playing, with white students acting the part of the minority, and intensive courses in the history of slavery and the liberation struggle. Race awareness seminars at North Carolina State University require participants to "engage in an intense, honest appraisal of their individual and collective racial attitudes".

Mr Atkinson fell from grace in April following a European Champions League semi-final between Chelsea and Monaco on which he had been commentating for ITV. Believing the microphone had been switched off, he railed against the Chelsea team, which had gone down to defeat, and the performance of former France international defender and captain Marcel Desailly in particular. Although British viewers heard nothing, the remarks were mistakenly broadcast to parts of the Middle East.

Mr Atkinson immediately offered his resignation and apologised, characterising it as "a moment of stupidity". He also lost his regular column on soccer tactics in The Guardian and commercial endorsements, including the 7Up drink. The incident proved unusually controversial because Mr Atkinson had a professional history of helping black players, and first rose to prominence managing the likes of Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, the first generation of non-white players to achieve national recognition.

Although he was heavily criticised for the remarks by a range of commentators, including Ian Wright, the former England and Arsenal striker, he was also supported by a number black players including Carlton Palmer.

A friend of Mr Atkinson said yesterday: "It was such a stupid thing to say that he was always going to get hammered for it. Everybody who knows him knows that he hasn't got a racist bone in his body."

Not everyone takes the same view. It is understood that Ian Wright refused to take part in the programme, which is made by the independent Aspect Television.

Darcus Howe did agree to appear on camera, but retains a dim view of Mr Atkinson who, he says, does not appear to have developed his views.

"He's not really changed his mind. He's in another world. In my opinion he's a traditional racist, which means you don't mind black people so long as they know their place," said Mr Howe.

He complained that many black players and former players are reluctant to criticise Mr Atkinson because he remains an influential figure in the game.

In a country as sensitive to its racial past as America, teaching racial awareness has become a small industry in itself. Government agencies do it for their own employees, schoolteachers try and introduce it to their pupils while they are young. Courses are offered by private companies and publishing houses list racial awareness books and brochures.

At the forefront is a Washington DC not-for-profit group called the National Coalition Building Institute. One prominent client of such courses was Denny's, a cheap and cheerful restaurant chain in the United States, which 10 years ago was hit with allegations that some of its locations would not serve African Americans. It was a public relations debacle. But the company moved fast to make amends. Racial awareness classes for its employees was a first priority. It also donated funds to colleges and institutions dedicated to bridging the racial gap.

In the world of sport, something went similarly awry at the Texas A&M American football squad last spring when two of its players were suspended after being charged with shouting racial slurs at blacks while on a drinking binge. They were allowed back on the team, but only after they had completed courses in racial and alcohol awareness.

Additional reporting by David Usborne