“It made me question whether I would be prepared to go through it all again were I on the receiving end of similar abuse in the future.” That sentence from Jonathan Leko should shake English football to its foundations. It won’t.
The West Bromwich Albion forward was racially abused by Kiko Casilla while on loan to Charlton Athletic in September. It took five months for The FA to ban the Leeds United goalkeeper for eight games and fine the 33-year-old £60,000. The independent Regulatory Commission also accepted that Casilla “is not a racist.” Almost immediately the Spaniard made his own public utterance: “I do not feel the verdict is a true reflection of the incident,” he claimed.
No wonder Leko feels like this justice delayed is hardly any justice at all. “I found the hearing, at which I was made to feel I had done something wrong, extremely stressful,” he said in his statement afterwards.
The lower standard of proof in these sort of proceedings is a civil law standard, meaning that decisions are made on the balance of probabilities. This explains the eagerness to avoid calling the perpetrator of racial abuse a racist. The law may be an ass but it’s an expert in hair-splitting. But, at a time when this sort of incident seems to be growing more common, the process smacks of heel-dragging and the punishment tepid. How could this rumble on for 22 weeks? Even the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra case took less than 10 weeks and that spawned a 115-page report (that said that Suarez, while guilty, was not a racist either). There must be a quicker way for The FA to expedite the procedure.
As disturbing was the perceived lack of support Leko received from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the players’ union, and Kick It Out (KIO), the anti-racism organisation. KIO said that it tried to make contact through Charlton and apologised but there are some mitigating circumstances. The entire KIO annual operation is conducted with a budget of significantly less than £1 million – £869,000 in the last accounts.
They are chronically understaffed and underfinanced. Their main donors – the Premier League, the FA, the Football League and the PFA – keep KIO afloat but with meagre offerings. The charity has had internal problems over the years but appears to be moving in the right direction now. To judge by their financial support, though, the game’s authorities think that the organisation is little more than a sideshow, some PR window dressing to show that they really care about the fight against racism.
The PFA were also a subject of criticism from Leko. The players’ union has no excuses. It has money to burn and should be one of the driving forces for good in football. Instead it is hidebound, reactive and prone to institutional stupidity.
Much of this is the fault of one man: Gordon Taylor. The 75-year-old has been in charge of the PFA for four decades and committed to stepping down from the role a year ago. There was genuine rejoicing because the need for change is pressing. That was until the small print became clear in Taylor’s resignation timetable. His exit can only be completed when an ongoing review of the union conducted by Sports Resolutions and led by Thomas Linden QC has finished. Then, a successor has to be found, appointed and a “transitional period” conducted before Taylor takes a final bow. Don’t hold your breath.
The PFA’s membership have many gripes but the section of players who have arguably been most let down by their union are those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Black players have toyed with the suggestion of setting up their own association on a number of occasions over the past two decades. Leko’s experience shows they might have been right to do this although a better solution would have been a new, dynamic leadership at the PFA that was more responsive to the problems that cross over from society into the sport.
Taylor’s office in Manchester is like a museum, with a mind-boggling collection of medals, shirts and artefacts from some of the greatest moments in football’s past. The man who sits behind the desk and savours this private collection is the biggest relic in the room. The sooner he is consigned to history the better. The PFA have failed on race and Leko’s complaints damn the institution anew.
Raheem Sterling spoke out last month, mooting an idea about creating a task force of players who would work with the Premier League to tackle racism. The initiative is a fine idea but it is dismaying that one of the victims of abuse should have to take such a leading role when there should be structures in place to protect black players.
It is easy to speak of zero tolerance but Leko’s ordeal suggests that this noble objective is a long way off. “I certainly would think twice about how to advise another player placed in the same situation,” he said.
This is the state of the game in 2020. Everyone involved should be ashamed, from top to bottom.
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