Cyrille Regis was one of the first black footballers to represent England, making his debut as a substitute against Northern Ireland in 1982.
In his autobiography, My Story, Cyrille recounts opening fan mail in the dressing room and seeing that one message, made up of letters cut out from a newspaper, said “if you put your foot on our Wembley turf you’ll get one of these through your knees.” Also in the envelope, wrapped in a cotton wool pad, was a bullet. Amazingly, after the initial shock, he laughed about it.
The story came to mind following his tragically early death in January. However, several fresh stories about racism in football have also appeared in the media recently. At Chelsea, various academy players have levied accusations of racism against coaches, Graham Rix and Gwyn Williams. The allegations involved overt, crude and offensive behaviours, which if true, no one would have a problem of condemning.
There is a long history of racism in football, dating back to the 19th century, when Arthur Wharton became the first professional black footballer in England. Black players were regularly abused, not only by opponents and fans, but by their own teammates and coaches. Speaking out against their treatment was not an option, as it would lead to being ostracised.
The media was complicit in this, rarely - if ever - reporting on what was occurring in the grounds. Indeed, racist abuse that Ruud Gullit received at Wembley when playing for the Netherlands against England was described as “good-natured banter” by BBC commentator, John Motson.
However, the media seemed to wake up to racism in the game in 2004, when reporting on the abuse given to England’s black players by Spanish fans in a match played in Madrid. Ironically, the journalists could see the racism in other countries’ supporters but not in their own.
Every story about racism in the game since has been given precedence, which is clearly a welcome development. As long as the behaviour is blatant and crude, the condemnation could not be clearer.
Psychologists refer to this type of behaviour as ‘old-fashioned racism’. Today, people know that explicit racial prejudice is less likely to be tolerated. As a result, racial prejudice has mutated into something called ‘modern racism’, which is far more indirect and less obvious than the examples given above.
Because cases of modern racism are therefore less clear, it’s easier to dismiss a victim’s complaints as “whingeing,” due to the fact that they “have a chip on their shoulder.” In an analysis of the amateur game, district associations would dismiss claims of racism made by black players, as an attempt to “play the race card.”
These subtle forms of prejudice do not fit neatly into legal definitions of discrimination. Jokes are part and parcel of life and can help teams bond. Can banter, (which implies it is good-natured) really be racist? This question was at the heart of the Football Association’s investigation into allegations of bullying and harassment made by Eniola Aluko, a player who has won over a hundred caps for her nation. The investigation was carried out by a black barrister who found no discrimination had occurred.
Unfortunately, whilst the subtle forms of discrimination slip under the net of legal definition, the impact on the victim is as great, if not greater, than blatant discrimination. Modern racism is not just an issue for football clubs, but for organisations. The first step in tackling it though, is to accept that it exists.