FOUL! Football, Racism and Language

Marcus Rashfsord Kicking it Out – Source: Author

Following continued online racist abuse from “humanity and social media at its worst,” footballer Marcus Rashford said on Twitter:

“I have beautiful children of all colours following me and they don’t need to read it [screenshots of abuse]. Beautiful colours that should only be celebrated.”

Dare we hope, that eventually these diverse, beautiful colours will be celebrated instead of being targets for abuse?

By ‘taking the knee’ and speaking out about the impact of racism on their professional and personal lives, footballers such as Rashford are bravely highlighting and challenging the institutional racism in their industry. While the problem is a wider, systemic one, which is found across society, football’s ability to empower change is immense. Also there is research showing the positive impact athletes have in society.

However, while a Stanford University study has shown that the arrival of Egyptian-born Mo Salah, a Muslim man, at Liverpool Football Club has contributed to a decline in Islamophobia in Merseyside, more than 150 football-related racist incidents were reported to police last season. According to The Guardian, Home Office figures show, a rise of more than 50% on the year before and more than double the number from three seasons ago. The figures, revealed by Home Office minister Susan Williams, show three years of increases in reported incidents across England and Wales, with a sharp rise from 98 to 152 between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. These official figures surely do not include the many cases, which are not officially reported or happen online, as has been highlighted recently by Rashford and others.

A study conducted between 17 June and 26 July 2020, commissioned by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) charity and supported by “Kick It Out”, found that 43% of Premier League players had experienced racist abuse on Twitter.

Kick It Out described the figures as unsurprising. A spokesman said:

“Racism is both a football and societal issue, and it is clear that we are living in a climate of rising hatred and tribalism across the world. In this country, the situation is no different and the language of division has become normalized within our political debate – and our politicians must take the lead in countering that.”

Gary Neville, the retired England footballer, has also blamed politicians, including the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, for creating a climate where racism is more acceptable. Neville commented:

“There are things being said within a political domain that four or five years ago were just not acceptable. What is said by politicians is followed up by the media, some of whom give it legitimacy.” 

Labour’s former shadow sports minister Catherine West had previously pointed out:

“The evidence from the Home Office is clear, with such an astonishing rise in football-related racist incidents since the 15-16 season, coinciding with the EU referendum and the normalisation of bigotry that it ushered in.”

Boris Johnson has an especially full back-catalogue of racially divisive comments. Back in his 2002 article for the Daily Telegraph he referred to: “flag-waving piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles.” In 1999, Mr Johnson also wrote a column deriding the Macpherson report, which found there was systemic racism in the police force. He commented that officers were too busy on “racial awareness programmes” to respond to crime reports. He seems to have no comprehension that his comments and use of language have encouraged racial tensions, discrimination and ignorance.

It’s as if he his stuck in the school playgrounds and ‘comedy’ programmes of the 1960’s. When asked to comment on his stream of offensive statements during a Question Time election debate special, the Conservative leader said:

“If you go through all my articles with a fine-tooth comb and pick out individual phrases, there’s no doubt that you can take out things that can be made to seem offensive.”

It’s not that they seem to be offensive. They are offensive!

It’s even worse than that. Language and comments of this type encourage, enable and sustain xenophobia and racism and thereby those who advocate it. When a prime minister or public official uses such language, racist attitudes become especially embolded and more publically acceptable. In America, in 2016, Pamela Taylor, a former West Virginia official referred to Michelle Obama as an ‘ape in heels’, with the former mayor of Clay, Beverly Whaling commenting “just made my day Pam”. And yet, the newly elected President Trump made no comment of reproach and last year. The fact that over 70 million Americans still voted for Trump in 2020 shows that many voters endorse his racist stance. Similarly, do all those British voters who gave Boris Johnson an 80 seat majority in 2019 also condone his racist views? Sadly, racism doesn’t seem to cost politicians votes.

Racism is of course found across the world. It is still clearly evident in many societies, in many situations and comes in many different forms. Neither is it limited to any one country, politician or political movement. Despite the abolition of slavery, the ending of apartheid and the civil rights movements and so much good work done by so many people and agencies, it remains another plague upon the planet.

Despite so much that has been achieved here in the UK, it is left to a footballer such as Marcus Rashford to call out “Foul” and remind us that there is still a long way to travel in football and in society, not just in the UK but across the world, before we can all embrace the beautiful diversity, the beautiful game and the “beautiful colours that should only be celebrated”.