WHEN Keith Alexander was growing up in Nottingham in the 1960s, he used to run errands for a local hairdresser called Mrs Cunningham. She had a dog, and one day she asked young Keith if he could go across the road to the corner shop to buy it some food.
'So I went in the shop and said, 'Can I have a can of dog food, please?' ' Keith Alexander recalled last week. 'And the woman behind the counter said, 'They tell me it's very nice stewed.' I thought nothing of it and I just said, 'Oh yeah, very nice' or something and it wasn't until years later when I heard people talking that I realised what the woman had meant. She thought we ate it. She actually thought we ate dog food.'
Why on earth might she have thought that? Because Keith was black, the son of parents from St Lucia who in 1954 had been among the first generation of West Indian immigrants to come to Britain. Keith was in less doubt about the business of the shop his parents ran. 'I remember one morning, I must have been about seven or eight, and a policeman knocked on the door and said, 'Your shop's been burnt down.' And we never did find out who did it. But the shop had been doing quite well, and it was always known it was a racist attack. There was never anything made of it, we never got any further, but my folks were about 20 years paying off the debts.'
Keith Alexander came through experiences like these to make a go of his life. Rather more than that, in fact. Last April he made history when he took over as the manager of Third Division Lincoln City. He wasn't the first black manager in the League - you have to go back to 1960 and Tony Collins at Rochdale for that - but he was the first of the generation born to those 1950s immigrants, the generation which has provided English football with some of its most exciting and talented players of the last 20 years. Racial prejudice is of less concern to Alexander now than the latest injury or who to leave out of the team for yesterday's big game against Bolton in the FA Cup. Which is not to say that he is unconcerned - far from it. But he does believe that in sport, at any rate, racial prejudice is less of a problem than it was.
Most people would agree with him. A cursory glance at the country's leading sports suggests a degree of racial integration, indeed harmony, unmatched in other walks of life. Take football: 20 per cent of professional players are now black; numerous black players have appeared for England since Viv Anderson became the first 15 years ago; Anderson (at Barnsley) and Alexander have broken into management; England have had a black captain in Paul Ince. In cricket, athletics and rugby league, it's a similar story: black men and women competing and thriving alongside white.
But is that the whole story? Just when you thought sport had gone a long way towards cleansing itself of racism, a new stain appears. Last week, after the England rugby union team's victory over the All Blacks, the England hooker, Brian Moore, pointed the finger at Sean Fitzpatrick, the All Blacks captain. Fitzpatrick, Moore said, had called Victor Ubogu, England's Nigerian-born prop forward, 'a black bastard'. Fitzpatrick denied it. Earlier in the season, Dudley Wood, secretary of the Rugby Football Union, upset Will Carling and other England players with 'racist' comments.
A court case in October was perhaps more troubling. It centred on an incident after a match between Stoke City and Stockport County last March in which the Stoke player Mark Stein assaulted an opponent, Jim Gannon, because he had called him 'a short, ugly, black, bean-headed twat'. Stein's reaction was hardly surprising. The judge gave him a conditional discharge.
Then there is perhaps what one first thinks of when the words 'racism in sport' crop up - the racism of the football crowd, the monkey noises, bananas thrown on the pitch, thousands of white voices descending on a player with a chant of 'You black bastard'. Such behaviour, on a mass scale, is indeed far less prevalent than it was 10 or more years ago. But on an individual level, racial abuse of footballers remains routine, even though every team in the League bar Everton has or has had at least one black player. There is no logic to it. Sitting among a group of Sheffield United supporters at Queen's Park Rangers earlier this season, you could hear Les Ferdinand being called a black bastard as often as you didn't like - by people whose own team had a black captain in Chris Kamara.
But if it is one thing for members of a crowd to get at players on grounds of race, it is quite another for the abuse to come from a fellow-player - which was why Fitzpatrick's alleged behaviour caused the controversy it did. What is one supposed to make of that? After all, Fitzpatrick's New Zealand team itself contained a number of Maoris. Chris Oti, another black England rugby player, thinks such abuse may be more a matter of gamesmanship than racism - designed to goad. 'I think that may have appeared to be worse than it was,' Oti says. 'It was perhaps something said in the heat of the moment. I would have been a lot more concerned if something like that had been said after the match. Of course, it would be naive to suggest there isn't racism, although I think rugby's a pretty healthy sport in that respect.'
Oti recognises that his education (Millfield, Durham and Cambridge) and professional life (he has just qualified as a surveyor) have given him the self-confidence to take any racism he might encounter in his stride - and that not many black or indeed white sportsmen have had his advantages. He is more concerned about the rise of racism away from sport and the election of a British National Party member in a local election in the East End of London.
Football has always had the biggest problems as far as racism is concerned. Keith Alexander remembers a time in his playing days with non-League Kettering when he scored the winning goal at Fisher Athletic, in south London, 'and was nearly lynched'. What the more high-profile black players went through in the early years 'must have been appalling'.
'We've moved on a lot since then,' Alexander says. 'But the fact remains that if you're black it's still twice as hard to get on in any walk of life. I've been very lucky to have a chairman and a managing director to whom colour doesn't matter. We've had a lot of support from the local council. It's a liberal-minded club. The fact that I am black is immaterial. I must have been the best person to have applied for the job, or otherwise I wouldn't have got it.'
Like Oti, Alexander has the personality and the talent to prosper in what might otherwise seem a more hostile environment. As such, they are inevitably cast as role models for aspiring young black sportsmen, and conscious of it. Alexander takes his obligations seriously, answering the numerous letters he receives from students doing courses in racism in sport, and giving talks. But he's not a politician. 'I can't take on everybody's problems,' he says. 'My first duty is to Lincoln City.'
Alexander agrees that progress has been made, helped in part by the more liberal footballing culture created by the fanzine generation, and by the way black players have generally risen above the abuse. 'I think it's because they haven't made a fuss that it's died down,' he says. 'But there will always be some people who go to matches just to pick on players. That's all they are there for, and I don't think they'll go away.'
It's in the hope that they will that the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) launched a 'Let's Kick Racism out of Football' campaign this season, comprising an eight- point plan of action which they have persuaded all but one club - York City - to endorse. Others, including Norwich City, were slow to respond, and Pat Nevin, the Tranmere Rovers winger who last week was elected chairman of the PFA, recognises the dangers of his organisation coming on all politically correct. If a well-behaved club like Norwich takes against being told how to behave, you can perhaps understand it. But for Nevin, a figure associated with the anti-racist cause since his days at Chelsea in the mid-80s, it is necessary to keep up the momentum.
Brendon Batson, who in the late Seventies was one of the first black footballers to make a mark in the English game along with his West Bromwich Albion team- mates Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, is now the deputy chief executive of the PFA. 'The campaign is targeted at supporters,' he says, 'although we've always prided ourselves on having an integrated sport. There still aren't many black people in boardrooms. That's the next step. But there's an economic side to that, of course.'
One of the aims behind the campaign is to create an environment in which more black people will feel able to attend football. The proportion of black people in the stands in no way reflects the numbers on the pitch. 'We want to send a message to reluctant black supporters,' Batson says. 'At the moment you're still likely to feel intimidated. I'm not sure, though, that black people will ever come in vast numbers. It isn't in their background, and it's taking time for the game to filter through.'
As long as the racist right wing continues to attach itself to the game, that probably won't change. And matters aren't helped, for example, when one Premiership club chairman responds to questions about his club's attitude to the British National Party by writing as he did in the club programme a few weeks ago that, 'I get irritated by people with funny accents lecturing me on what I should do in my own country.'
Rugby league's tradition of black players is as long if not longer than football's. And it has always prided itself on the ease with which black and white have mixed. In relative terms, it has been a successful process, although Martin Offiah, star of Wigan and Great Britain and a former rugby union man, will tell you that he has had his share of racial abuse - 'I wouldn't call it an everyday event, but it's something I've come to expect.' This season, under pressure from supporters, Maurice Lindsay, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, has issued a statement condemning racism.
Look at athletics and you will perhaps find the most racially integrated sport of all. Kriss Akabusi, the recently retired runner, was one of a generation of black athletes that included Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and John Regis for whom admiration and respect have been almost unequivocal. 'I've not experienced any racism in my sport,' he says. 'But then I think it helps that it's not a team sport. It's a very objective matter. The superior person wins and that's that.'
The next big step is for some of the black people who have become so prominent on the field to start to take up positions in managing and administration. Akabusi can see no objects in his way if that was the course he wanted to take. In football and both codes of rugby, matters may not be so easy. Brendon Batson looks forward to the day when there is a 'black Jack Walker around'. It may yet be some way off.
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