Despicable, abhorrent, spineless and shameful. As Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka failed to convert past Gianluigi Donnarumma during the penalty shootout at the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley last summer, the trio were subsequently subject to a tidal wave of vile racial abuse on social media in the aftermath, later described by Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate as “unforgivable” and “just not what we stand for.”
When the Premier League returned to action in June 2020 following theoutbreak of the Covid-19 outbreak, players, managers, and refereestook a knee before the games as part of the ongoing battle of tackling racism in football. This coincided with the death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests which took place across the world this summer, triggering a conversation as to whether sufficient progress has been made to address racism within society in general and sport in particular.
While there is no doubt that taking the knee was and contiunes to be and extrmely potent powerful symbol to highlight the issue of racism not only in football but in society, racism continues to stain the beautiful game and modern day society.
Troy Townsend, the head of development at Kick It Out, has spent over 20 years with the organisation, attempting to offer support to the victims of racism at the same time as holding football’s governing bodies to account. However, when discussing how we can eradicate racism and discriminatory behaviour within football and society, the father of Everton and former England winger Andros provides a frank but straightforward solution.
“By laws, by sanctions, by imprisonment, because they’re hate crimes,” says Townsend. “I think football can have a massive influence back into our society. And I challenge people that say, well, it’s not a football problem, it’s a societal problem. Well, football is part of society and football has a certain power in this space to enable the kind of conversations that are needed.
Woefully, racism has continued to undermine and stain the beautiful games for decades, with Anthony Martial, Axel Tunzebe, Lauren James, Romaine Sawyers, Reece James, Alex Jankewitz, Anthony Elanga, Rio Ferdinand, and Ian Wright being just some of the many footballers to have been racially abused online in the past year.
Furthermore with the influx in popularity of social media, racism has become more prominent than ever. Before and during the Euro 2020 tournament, England players knelt before each of their matches in a symbolic display of unity in the fight against racism and inequality and aiming to raise the conversation around racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic racism in football and wider society.
However, this gesture merely caused anger among sections of the England fanbase, with some supporters choosing to boo as the players knee. In response to those who contend and choose to boo those taking the knee, Townsend condemns the ‘ignorant’ individuals booing and opposing the gesture, believing they are merely perpetuating racism and defying the objective behind the gesture.
“It shows you who they are,” Townsend emphatically states. “It flags up their lack of understanding of what the players are trying to achieve. It kind of shows a level of ignorance by those people. The many fans that continue to boo the knee, they’re the ones that we need to root out. Some will say booing is not an offense. Some people say, well, I’m not offending them but you are because of the act of what you’re booing against. The players have said it time and time again, what they want to achieve through the taking of their knee and it’s been a strong and powerful message every time they’ve done that.
“So actually, they don’t want the black voice to be promoted. They don’t want the negative black experiences to be diminished. That’s what they’re doing every time they’re booing the players, players from all different backgrounds who have come together in solidarity to send probably one of the strongest messages around discrimination that you could ever wish to see. That’s what they’re booing against and it’s those that we need to challenge and confront so that we try and help them change their mindset or we eliminate them from our game.
Alongside fans booing players taking the knee, even members of our own inexplicably government questioned athletes taking the knee and it’s the reason behind the gesture during England’s run to the final at Wembley last summer. This led to Three Lions and Aston Villa defender Tyrone Mings delivering a scathing response against the UK Government and UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, who previously claimed England fans have the right to boo England team for what she described as ‘gesture politics’ of taking of the knee, in the wake of abhorrent racist abuse aimed at a number of England players by Tweeting: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”
Townsend, who has spent over a decade campaigning for equality and inclusivity in football, echoes Mings thoughts, believing their opinion ‘doesn’t matter in this conversation’, citing the blatant hypocrisy of the government’s ministers in their attitudes towards tackling racism and athletes taking the knee and questioning their reasoning behind it.
“Let’s be serious, we’re talking about a government who, unfortunately, a number of their own figures have used language that is racist, use language that is sexist, use language that is homophobic. They’ve used Islamophobic language. There’s nothing to an end,” Townsend highlights. “So, the government doesn’t really play a part in this because this is the same government that was saying that the players shouldn’t take the knee and all the abuse they get is warranted, it’s the same government that when England was reaching the semi-finals and the final of the Euros, were very quick to put on their England National shirts and support the players. So, for me, their voice doesn’t matter in this space and doesn’t matter in this conversation.
Discussing how major governing bodies and organizations in football, such as the Premier League, Football League, PFA and LMA are they doing enough to prevent racism and discrimination from the game, the Head of Development at Kick It Out provides a straightforward and damning response, believing English footballing bodies are underperforming across the board when it comes to the fight against racism.
“No. Simple as that. I think at the moment, everybody and particularly those bodies feels that racism just exists on social media now, and it’s the only time that I’ve seen those bodies actually collectively come together to send out strong messages. But that’s easy because that doesn’t hold any of the football clubs or the fan accountable for the actions that actually physically happen on a Saturday, on a Sunday, on a Tuesday, Wednesday night.
“That’s why I want to see football collectively come together. This season alone there have been many incidents that I haven’t seen reported, that I haven’t seen those bodies get involved in, that I haven’t seen those bodies comment on. It’s all right saying there’s no room for racism and it’s all right saying that today, not today, not any day. All the campaigns that exist, all the hashtags that exist. But fundamentally, you’re not serving the people that are in your environment, because actually there has been room for racism. Actually, it is happening today and every day. So the wording in your publicity stunts is not working.“
There are several impertative steps that simply must be taken in order to really aim to tackle and eradciate racism from both within football and society. Crucially, social media companied need to tackle online abuse and provide data to police on a more consistent basis. One way in which racism on social media could be tackled would be to ban anonymous accounts, in which proof of ID would to become mandatory to provide identification before setting up a social media account.
Although racism is obviously a broader societal problem that is not restricted to the bubble of social media, the inadequacy of limits for behaviour online has fuelled a worsening of discrimination within modern day society, Additionally, as campaining group Kick It Out have been aiming to do since being established in 1997, an essential method of tackling racism is by raising awareness of discrmination and racism amongst football fans and supporting victims of racisms an anti-social behaviour,
No matter how you look at it, racism is an abohorent act and is simply unacceptable in within society and football. The more troubling aspect of the situation, however, is the prologned silence that surrounds it as those in power continue to keep their lips pursed. Furthermore, excusing discrimination is as equally condemnable as the perpaertraror practicing it.