There's more to anti-racism in football than the Kick it Out campaign - as the likes of Rio Ferdinand know

A leading academic in the field of sport and society says approving of a cause such as anti-racism doesn't imply support for the strategy used to implement it

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Last weekend a number of high profile footballers chose not to wear the promotional Kick It Out anti-racism campaign t-shirts before their respective matches, raising a number of questions and eliciting high profile criticism from Sir Alex Ferguson no less. These events expose the subtle power of the apparent just cause to become naturalised and promoted as a universally shared strongly valued good.

One can agree with a central premise – in this case, that racism is bad and needs to be driven out – but disagree with the common approach or strategy implemented. Last weekend revealed this subtle distinction and showed us how sport can be used to both reinforce and challenge popular ideologies.

Public relations events like Kick It Out’s t-shirt day are designed to ensure we are all incorporated by proxy into endorsing the chosen ideological cause. But crucially it also incorporates us into supporting the official approach to tackling the problem whether or not we actually do. It is likely that all public figures will support (or wish to be seen supporting) anti-racism initiatives. Even when the central cause is apparently universally supported, it is still reasonable to question, critique or even oppose the method and narrative provided by others on ‘our’ behalf.

Tension

Yet this reveals a fundamental tension – questioning the methods apparently endorsed by ‘society’ (which is in reality powerful groups within society) often precipitates the misguided belief that decent society (and it is always assumed that society is decent) is itself under attack. Alex Ferguson may well be “embarrassed” at his employee not endorsing Kick It Out but this reveals more about Ferguson’s myopic view of racism from a privileged position as the most successful (and powerful) football manager of the most successful (and powerful) club in the country than the alleged flaws of Rio Ferdinand.

Reducing any ideological cause to something perceived as universally fixed, similarly experienced and devoid of power inequalities grossly caricatures the reality that different groups experience, interpret and react to social life in unique rather than identical ways. This common failure to acknowledge such inter-group contrasts leads to reality (racism in this case) being partially viewed through one’s own subjective eyes resulting in ethnocentrism – ironically one of racism’s allies.

Racism is not exclusively one-way, but we can be sure that its most common victim in British football is black or Asian, not white. Furthermore, racism takes many forms, which are sometimes subtle to all and invisible to those who don’t suffer it. These range from institutionalised and structural elements (lack of non-white coaches and officials) to attitudinal and cultural elements (racist chanting, racial stereotyping and positional stacking); thus, the ease with which white men can endorse anti-racism initiatives by wearing the t-shirt once a year oblivious to the raw reality of dysconscious racism for many black and Asian minorities all year round.

It is unsurprising to discover that most of the weekend t-shirt dissenters were black players. Or to put it in black and white terms (pun intended), Rio Ferdinand’s experiences around racism are almost certainly not the same as Alex Ferguson’s, so it would be unsurprising if their respective ideas around proposed solutions were identical.

We all have every right to oppose an initiative in our name, especially if we are the main victim and we deem it toothless and spin-focused rather than effective and result-driven. This is not the place to debate the merits or otherwise of Kick It Out. But when some key stakeholders reject it, we should at least sit up and listen.         

This anti-racism t-shirt row is significant and illuminating due to the fact that it is difficult to interpret the dissenter actions as motivated by a lack of support for the central cause (anti-racism). Rather, it appears to be due to a lack of belief in the current approach to dealing with the problem. When sport is used to promote ideological causes, those incorporated by proxy into such causes have every right to opt out. When sport is politicised, nobody should be surprised nor opposed to the key stakeholders’ right to dissent.

Irony

Alex Ferguson telling one of his black players that “he will be dealt with” due to opting out of the t-shirt promotion reveals the irony of the white knight of the British Empire dictating to his black employee how he should act (and by virtue of such acts, what he must support). Irony is compounded given this occurred within an anti-racism context. Ferguson should not be “embarrassed” by Ferdinand’s dissent but should be supportive and curious as to why he is dissenting in the first place.

Yet we should be understanding rather than completely dismissive of Ferguson’s attitude, be careful not to make the mistake Ferguson makes. Much prejudice is the result of unthinking conformity with prevailing cultural norms. Thus, it is common for men in sexist societies to deny the existence of sexism and for the non-Irish descendants in Scotland to deny ‘sectarianism’ exists. But even when a problem is acknowledged it is common to be misguided about what its nature or solution may be.

Therefore, the voice of the disenfranchised black footballer must be heard and not silenced, never mind reprimanded for his actions. Rather than white men criticising black footballers, perhaps white men should be asking why black footballers refused to wear the t-shirt.

Wearing a t-shirt once or twice a year and participating in a staged photo opportunity is always limited in what it can achieve. Luis Suarez, John Terry and countless others have worn the t-shirt. Just because you’ve got the t-shirt does not mean you’ve got the message and it most certainly does not mean the problem is being addressed in the appropriate manner if at all.

Rather than chastise and blame the unsupportive victim for not buying into ‘our’ message, our method and its results, perhaps we need to question ‘our’ strategy. And if sport is going to be used for (any) ideological inculcation, we must accept the rights of everyone to opt in or out as they see fit.

Dr John Kelly is a Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. His book Sport, Exercise and Social Theory: An Introduction is released by Routledge this week

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