To put it how a player might, football's had a shocker. After a week of abject racism and thuggery, Reading striker Jason Roberts was joined by Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand and other professional footballers in deciding to make a point about racism in football by not wearing the Kick it Out t-shirt. Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson fined Rio for not wearing it, having said previously of Roberts that "There shouldn't be sheep wandering off" in one of the most staggering displays of point missing ever recorded.
Along with approximately 6.3 million other people who've written about this I remember what football used to be like. It was grim and horrible and the black players who went out and played every week despite the monkey chants and the bananas deserve to be lauded in every possible way for standing up to bigots and morons. Alongside them organisations like Let's Kick Racism Out of Football (the organisation which became Kick it Out) were instrumental in radically shifting the culture of football to one where, by and large, racism is considered unacceptable. People of all backgrounds stood shoulder to shoulder and made football grounds better for players and fans alike, and they deserve huge credit for that.
In terms of what it says about campaigning, the weekend's footy furore highlights a genuine challenge which faces many organisations at some point. It runs like this:
- A problem is identified
- Individuals get together to change the problem
- They have some success, as institutions in charge of the problem area make the investment and structural changes necessary
- The organisation finds itself, therefore, closer to the institution it was challenging
- The organisation is then seen by some as weakened by this proximity to the power it once sought to challenge
Jason Roberts felt that Kick it Out haven't spoken out strongly enough on the high profile racism cases in football in the past year. On that basis, he was right not to follow other t-shirt wearing players like a sheep, as Fergie would put it. It's started a debate and will ultimately help focus the minds of racism in football campaigners.
If I were advising Kick it Out I would say that they need to get on the front foot and tell the story of the huge impact they've had (which is true and they should be shouting about it) and how they plan to keep the fight going. I might even try - externally at least - to put a bit of blue water between them and the FA, if even to show that they are still on this side of the players and the fans they were set up to help.
The perceived credibility of organisations is a subjective issue and one which is constantly changing. If you engage with campaigning organisations a lot, they will do and say things you agree with and disagree with. No one cares as much about organisations as the people working within them and I can tell you from experience that this also leads to some robust internal discussions. This is good. Campaigning for change is not an exact science - it's an ever evolving discourse, a battle of ideas and trends which often veers off in unexpected directions based on external influences. This is why it's amazing. It's also why it's incredibly frustrating.
The lesson here is, to me, clear. Credibility is fundamental to campaigning organisations. People need to trust you in order to back your campaign and - crucially - tell someone else about it. They want to know you are speaking out and standing up for what you believe in. But you also need to have some access to those in power if you are to get them to listen to you and secure change. This isn't always pleasant and often requires some compromise. It's an incredibly tough balance to strike and while very few organisations do it really well, those that manage it are the ones that make a real and lasting difference.
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