Jason Roberts, the player whose decision not to wear a Kick It Out T-shirt led dozens to follow suit, broke his silence last night to reveal that he was forced to act after the game's union had ignored a detailed charter for change which he has put to them several times in the past year.
The Reading striker told The Independent that the Professional Footballers' Association had failed to act on a number of specific recommendations, first formally tabled in the immediate aftermath of the Luis Suarez and John Terry controversies a year ago and repeatedly put forward since. The lack of action from the union led to a group of 30 former and current players arriving to lobby the union two weeks ago at a meeting in which the chief executive, Gordon Taylor, was warned that last weekend's boycott would take place.
Taylor yesterday called on Roberts and Rio Ferdinand to work with him to unite a sport struggling to tackle racism collectively and said "we now have black player against black player." But Roberts, who has been a member of the PFA's management committee for the past two years, revealed that the PFA was made aware of the precise concerns of players at an extraordinary meeting of the committee staged within weeks of the Suarez/Terry racism incidents. Roberts and the former West Bromwich Albion defender Darren Moore, another PFA management committee member, requested the meeting, having been deluged with calls and emails from players who felt that the issue of race in football was not being dealt with. Taylor could not be reached for comment last night.
Rio Ferdinand moved quickly yesterday to play down reports that he is working on the formation of the union, advising his Twitter followers "don't believe all you read". Roberts declined to discuss other players. He spoke out with some reluctance amid suggestions in some quarters that he and other black players have not made it clear what they want. The 34-year-old has had no involvement with the reported creation of a new black players union, despite claims from prominent human rights barrister Peter Herbert that discussions have taken place.
The specific concerns detailed by Roberts and 38-year-old Moore in the last year included the questionable size of the PFA's equality unit, which has been staffed for much of that time by only one officer, Simone Pound. A new recruit to the unit, Iffy Onuora, the former Gillingham forward, was appointed without consultation with Roberts and Moore, and the PFA has provided no idea about his precise role – a source of concern to Roberts and other players. The PFA chairman, Clarke Carlisle, who was not present at the meeting with the 30 players at the union's Manchester headquarters earlier this month. The players have also been urging the PFA to help overhaul the Kick It Out organisation, which they feel has lost its strength and authority.
Other recommendations – which Roberts says were tabled repeatedly to the PFA management committee which comprises several players, Carlisle and Taylor – include stronger lobbying on the "Rooney rule", which requires clubs to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation opportunities; more staff and greater visibility at Kick It Out. He also wanted more Kick It Out work on getting black and ethnic minorities into coaching and management; and more legal support and expertise after alleged failings in the support of striker Mark McCammon, whom an industrial tribunal found was unfairly sacked by Gillingham.
Roberts also wants greater independence for Kick It Out, which is part-funded by the Football Association and want the organisation to be more in touch with players. They also feel that its funding – of around £300,000 a year – reflects the complacency in the game about racism. "All we've had is a year of listening," Roberts said. "Nothing has happened – and nothing, still, since Saturday. We travel the country talking to players. We want to help make this happen but all we get is talk. We've just been told to be patient."
Roberts said he spoke for dozens of black players who are exasperated by the suggestion that the fight against racism has been won, simply because bananas are no longer thrown and monkey noises are no longer made. "That argument is redundant. Gone," said Roberts. "The last generation suffered from monkey chants and we have to move it forward from simply being happy that we no longer get that. I'm not just happy to be here where we are. We should have the same opportunities as other people to get into management and coaching. We should have a serious approach to representation. Kick It Out should be seriously funded. We should have a serious, properly funded and staffed equality department with strong leadership within the PFA"
Roberts insisted that it is the general complacency about discrimination and not the Terry/Suarez sagas which caused his protest. "This isn't about Suarez or Terry," Roberts said. "The response to those incidents from Kick it Out and the PFA was certainly soft and players felt that their representatives had let them down. Players were looking for them to come forward and lead the conversation and they were slow. But that reflected the wider problem about complacency in the way that representation is being dealt with. That is the point we have been trying to make for the last year."
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