The Premier League discovered to its surprise last week that addressing centuries of racial oppression might be a tougher nut to crack than it first thought.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, it had marched into the political arena for the first time with the evangelical zeal of a newly-enlisted freedom fighter and then reacted with alarm when it realised that it takes more than a logo on a t-shirt to put things right.
Startled by the fact that some had sought to portray its players as blood-soaked revolutionaries thirsting for the destruction of capitalism and the overthrow of the police because they had had the temerity to say that black lives matter, the Premier League and some of its clubs hurried to distance themselves from the notion they might actually be seeking to make a meaningful intervention in the debate.
Premier League players are continuing to wear the Black Lives Matter logo on their sleeves
You could almost hear their business brains shorting out. ‘It’s just a logo, we didn’t mean any harm by it,’ the speech bubble would have said.
Their corporate panic at the thought of being left behind in the outrage over police killings in America was replaced just as quickly by corporate panic that the League was now being associated with the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement and its views on a whole range of subjects from Palestine to the nuclear family.
Obsessed by gestures and slogans, big on symbols of change, not so big on actual change, preoccupied with protecting its brand and scared rigid of anything that looks like a principle, English football’s men in suits must have suddenly felt an awfully long way from home.
Sensitive to suggestions that it had become politicised, the Premier League issued a statement on Tuesday night.
‘We are aware of the risk posed by groups that seek to hijack popular causes,’ it said, apparently without any intended sense of irony. Those who have long been campaigning for race reforms on both sides of the Atlantic are also aware of the risk posed by groups that seek to hijack popular causes and might recognise the Premier League among their number.
Let us get one thing straight immediately: the attempt to conflate a simple cry of despair made by a group of English footballers with the wider aims of the Black Lives Matter organisation is a wilful misinterpretation of what is happening.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters deserves credit for keeping logo on shirts
It is a tried and tested template: sow confusion and mistrust to negate gains, in this case the gains that the campaign for racial equality may have made in the wake of Floyd’s killing.
The League and its chief executive Richard Masters deserve credit for refusing to take the Black Lives Matter logo off the sleeves of the players’ shirts but it is to be hoped that they complement all the laudable community work so many clubs undertook during the coronavirus crisis by adding action to their gesture politics on race.
What happens post-logo? That’s the biggest question. What happens when the heat cools? Will any of the Premier League’s ardour for dealing with racial injustice survive? Does it actually mean any of this?
That’s when we will find out whether any of this was real or whether it was a giant PR masterclass in how to buy time when there are calls for change.
It is the same in America where the NFL is scrambling desperately for forgiveness in the wake of its disastrous handling of Colin Kaepernick’s Black Lives Matter protests. Its latest plan is to play the so-called ‘black national anthem’, ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,’ before each of its first round of games in September. It was met with varying degrees of scorn.
‘What is a song if you have NFL owners who still refuse to say Black Lives Matter?’ the Los Angeles Times columnist LZ Granderson asked. ‘What is a song if you have owners who continue to support politicians who cannot say ‘black lives matter’?
The Premier League’s commitment to tackling racism must go beyond allowing stars to take the knee
‘I understand that the NFL is trying to find different ways to insert itself late into the conversation on the right side of history but don’t give me a damn song.
Address the racism in your hiring process and for heaven’s sake stop playing both sides of the fence with your ownership group when it comes to philanthropy and political donations because it undermines any efforts you are trying to make to try and have criminal justice reforms.’
The Premier League faces the same doubts about whether there is any substance beyond its posturing. For a start, it must stand firm and resist that pressure from opponents to backtrack over its messaging.
The fight against racial injustice is not a parade where people wave plastic flags at you and clap. It is a struggle that gets dirty and bitter. The Premier League is either in or it is out. Its gestures of support are either part of a cynical marketing strategy or they mean something.
If they mean something, now is not the time to run for the hills. If the League’s endorsement of its players dropping to one knee before the start of matches in this resumed season and wearing Black Lives Matter logos on their sleeves was more than just a sop to the young men who make all their money for them, then it has to be the start of real change.
The league must accept and embrace its involvement in the issue of racial injustice is political
At some level, too, it has to accept that its involvement in the issue of racial injustice is political. And it has to do more than accept it. It has to embrace it.
That would be a departure. Until now, it has made a virtue of standing for absolutely nothing politically. Folks who fly ‘White Lives Matter’ banners behind light planes buy replica shirts, too. But, like it or not, it has now stepped into a different domain.
It might tell itself that saying ‘black lives matter’ is a simple message that should unite everyone and in a perfect world it would.
But it didn’t work that easily for Martin Luther King Jnr and it certainly isn’t going to work for Masters, last seen in action pleading the Fifth a few days ago when being grilled by MPs about the prospect of Saudi Arabia buying Newcastle United.
If Masters cannot even bring himself to admit that a regime that murders its opponents and cuts them into little pieces with a bone-saw and executes criminals in public might not be suitable owners for one of his best-supported football clubs, then we probably also have to accept he may not be a man who is particularly big on human rights.
There are other problems for the Premier League, too. Far from being revolutionaries, the players taking a knee before matches are essentially conservative as a collective.
We will have to wait to see whether the Premier League’s actions have any substance to them
They are young men, usually from working class backgrounds, usually suspicious of radicalism and usually earning a lot of money from jobs they have worked themselves into the ground to get.
But they have had enough of being patronised by football’s hierarchy. I spoke to a Premier League player on Saturday who has been prominent in the Black Lives Matter conversation and he was at pains to point out that English footballers are not protesting about defunding the police or the iniquities of capitalism but they are protesting about the lack of diversity within the upper echelons of the English game.
They are protesting about the lack of black coaches in the English game. They are protesting about the lack of black managers in the English game. They are protesting about the lack of black executives in the English game. And he was particularly scathing about the Premier League’s recent refusal to reveal the extent of the diversity of its own workforce.
The Premier League has also consistently refused to entertain the idea of instituting a Rooney Rule, an idea pioneered in the NFL, which compels clubs to interview a black or ethnic minority candidate when they have a managerial vacancy.
Only one of the 20 Premier League clubs, Wolverhampton Wanderers, has a black manager, Nuno Espirito Santo.
Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo is the only black manager out of the 20 Premier League clubs
The rule has, in theory, been implemented in the English Football League but in reality, there is a loophole which allows clubs to conduct their recruitment processes informally, exactly as they did before.
The number of black coaches in the League has actually gone down in recent weeks after Sol Campbell left Southend United. There are 91 clubs across the four top divisions in the English game. Only five now have a black manager.
If the Premier League’s endorsement of the message that black lives matter is to have any coherent meaning, if its logos and its giant flags in our empty stadiums are to have any worth, then it has to take real steps to fix that lack of opportunity. The new work placement programme it announced for BAME coaches last week felt like a face-saving exercise and little more.
The Premier League’s current three-year television deal, remember, is worth £9.2bn and yet it gives funding of only £300,000 annually to Kick It Out, English football’s most prominent equality and inclusion organisation. The money is gratefully accepted, by the way, but set against the enormity of the Premier League’s revenues, it is a drop in the ocean.
The Premier League’s television deal is worth £9.2bn but they give only £300,000 annually to Kick It Out
This is a critical moment for the League and its relationship with racial equality. There is a realisation among protesters and activists that the revulsion over the killing of George Floyd in plain sight has given the racial equality movement great momentum, just as horror over the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 was seen as the catalyst for a new phase of the American civil rights movement.
People are bored of the kind of platitudinous excuses in which sport’s governing bodies have become expert. In the States, it was announced on Friday that, after years of pressure, the ownership of the NFL’s Washington Redskins had finally agreed to review the team’s name, which is seen by many as a dehumanising insult to Native Americans.
In the American National Women’s Soccer League, it used to be a story when a player knelt for the national anthem. Last week, it was a story that made national headlines when a player, Rachel Hill, of the Chicago Red Stars, remained standing. She was not ostracised for it, by the way, as some have suggested players here would be if they decided they did not want to take the knee.
The debate here has largely been reasoned, too. Sky Sports analyst Matt Le Tissier said he was conflicted about wearing a Black Lives Matter badge on his lapel because he did not agree with the aims of the political movement.
Some of his colleagues have stopped wearing the badge, too. Others, like former England defender Ashley Cole, chose to display it. The BBC banned its presenters from wearing it. On BT Sport, it is a matter of personal choice.
A healthy exchange of views is only to be welcomed. If the sight of footballers wearing Black Lives Matter logos on their sleeves prompts any of us to try to learn more about the civil rights movement, for instance, that can only be a good thing.
Healthy debate, including Matt Le Tissier’s view that he was conflicted about wearing the badge, is welcomed
A small example: the acclaimed American television documentary ’13th’, which explores the history of racial inequality in the US, was made in 2016 but I hadn’t bothered to watch it. I watched it on Friday.
It is a time of accelerating change in the way sport and race interact and in our awareness of the obstacles black men and women in this country still face. Last week, I listened to the NBC football presenter Robbie Earle, his voice cracking, talking about sensing white women crossing the road to avoid his path in a city centre.
My friend Darren Lewis, the sports journalist and television presenter, wrote an article about his day-to-day experiences, too.
‘To be black in this country is to be seen as a threat first and a person later. Being black is having to tell your children, as my father warned me, that they will need to work twice as hard and shout twice as loudly to be as valued as much as their white counterparts.
‘Being black is having to activate your kind, smiley nature to actively (constantly) set white people at ease on your initial meeting.’
All the while, the NFL sings songs and the Premier League puts a logo on a sleeve. No wonder black footballers are saying enough is enough.
‘Justice too long delayed,’ Dr King said, ‘is justice denied.’ If the Premier League is serious about racial injustice post-logo, it needs to act fast or another generation of black managers will be lost to the game.