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


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.


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.


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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate / Junior C# Developer

£18000 - £25000 Per Annum + bonus and benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

£65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

Teaching Assistants needed in Chester

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Teaching Assistants needed in Cheshire...

Male PE Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside  

Autumn’s subtle charm is greatly enhanced by this Indian summer

Michael McCarthy
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits