Football racism: Players must fight to end ‘token gesture’ legislation

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Ricky Weir, who held the top job at Springfield between 2006-2012, suggests the system is failing a large number of black, Asian and minority ethnic [BAME] players both here and around the world, as officials responsible for stamping out abuse are not making the bold decisions required for change.

Weir, who has Nigerian heritage, was raised by adoptive parents in Scotland during the 1960s and 1970s and went on to become the Channel Islands’ first-ever non-white football association president.

His comments come amidst the latest nationwide football campaign to rid the game of racism and follows a recent case of alleged (and unproven) racial abuse on a football pitch in Jersey.

‘A word that’s come out throughout my life is “ignorance”,’ he said.

‘Is a kid racist because he or she comes out with a perceived racist remark on a football field, that they might have heard from someone else? They might not have racist tendencies.

‘And what is the definition of racism? I don’t think people take time to think about what it constitutes before they legislate for it and the legislation ends up being inadequate.

‘There’s a big area that’s really grey, because I think it depends on the context.

‘In the context of football, which is an emotional game, is a throw-away comment on the field racism? As opposed to a guy in the stands who, unprovoked, shouts something to a player on the football field.

‘The authorities are trying to legislate against incidents in the game, but from my point of view the real racist is the person on the sidelines who is outwardly shouting a comment that is construed to be racist.’

According to figures released to the Times newspaper, who this week released a national discrimination manifesto which has been backed by some of the biggest names in football, less than one % of executive positions within European clubs, leagues and associations are filled by BAME people. Understandably Weir believes this needs to change, but he admits that it should not be a straightforward process.

‘It needs to be done in the right way,’ he said.

‘So much is done in a stifled environment, with people sitting behind a desk saying “this is what the rules are going to be”, and sometimes people are invited onto these boards because of their status. They might be a Lord or a Lady but they’re still people who have never faced the discrimination that they’re trying to deal with.

‘Absolutely there needs to be more balance in all organisations, but it can’t be an overnight thing. I’m totally against just putting people into positions to meet quotas. Too many organisations just want to be seen to have an equality programme, where every third person must be Asian or black. You don’t achieve anything like that, you can’t just plant someone in there because it’s their turn.’

Weir referred to the case of former England footballer Eni Aluko, who made claims that former England Women’s manager Mark Sampson told her to ensure her relatives did not bring the Ebola virus to England in 2014. An FA panel cleared Sampson of any wrongdoing, but he was dismissed in 2017 when further allegations of inappropriate behaviour in a previous role were made public.

Weir believes Aluko, or people like her, should be leading the way.

‘That case … the FA were meant to be leading from the front, but what a disaster,’ he said.

‘And in the aftermath Eni wasn’t even invited to be involved – someone who really understands the issues. There couldn’t be a better candidate to lead [legislation improvements], but it was “we know best and we’ll do it our way”. Eni was more eloquent and intelligent than the whole FA panel they put together.

‘People are just using academic textbooks to make legislation … I think there needs to be people who have experience of what’s going on.’

The former Jersey Footballer of the Year also believes there are clear flaws with the disciplinary process, and the punishments subsequently handed down: ‘In the Aluko case one of the prime people who had witnessed what went on wasn’t even interviewed, so you question what the starting point is and it goes back to the authorities saying “leave it with us, we know best”. The so-called victim has no avenue to say what’s actually gone on.

‘The FA are taking guidance from Uefa but the process of how they arrive at the rules needs to change. It needs wider understanding rather than these sound bites like “zero tolerance”. What does that even mean?

‘I also hate to hear people saying “we’re doing as much as we can”. That seems like a token gesture and the local football authorities … they might take guidance from the FA but I still think there are things you can do that aren’t bound by the legal aspect.’

He continued: ‘Uefa have got to do more than they’re doing. Fining a player or a club is a waste of time, and even stadium closures. The authorities have to take steps that will hit you hard.

‘I absolutely think the authorities should go to a points deduction and/or elimination from competitions. Then you’ll really see change … it will hurt teams much more than a fine.

‘We’re often waiting on them to do stuff – an enquiry or a new set of rules that don’t satisfy anyone. It should lead to something absolutely substantial like being eliminated from a competition next year.’

Much debate has also been had on whether teams should be punished for leaving the field in response to racism, as fines for the protesting club can often be more substantial than those handed down to clubs sharing responsibility for the abuse.

Weir wants that to change, too, and urges players to stand against the law.

‘Let’s say there are ten% of footballers who are racist and ten% who are subject to it – the strength is in the other 80%,’ he said.

‘I would want to see a captain taking his team off and not leave it to the guy or girl who’s suffering. I want them to be less passive.

‘Okay, the first point might be to bring it to the attention of the referee, but a team should then show solidarity and it’s about making a statement, bringing attention to it and not feeling as though the onus is on you to prove it.

‘There is still a big silent group who don’t know what to say or what to do. They’re not endorsing what’s being said but they’re not saying anything against it either.

‘If a team acts as a unit, whatever the consequences, that’s going to get us closer to solutions.

‘The only way to change the law is by going against the law.’

Discussing his childhood experiences in football, and how the colour of his skin affected the way he was treated, Weir said: ‘I grew up in Gartcosh but played a lot of my football in Glasgow and I predominantly suffered more through ignorance, rather than outright racism. I was never beaten up and it was never constant, so if I look back and think “did I ever suffer from racism?”. Probably not.

‘But there was one game when I was about 14 … it was a cup final in the east end of Glasgow and it was one of the largest crowds I’d played in front of, and rather than it [racism] being a one-off comment it became chanting. We did win and I’d played well, but nevertheless I can remember feeling down on myself because it was a new experience.

‘In a moment when I should have been up I was definitely down, but my dad just said to me “son, if they’re not calling you names it means you’re having a stinker”. It’s barely a sentence, but honestly from that day on it became a catalyst for me and that sentiment took me through the rest of my career.’

He added: ‘There is discrimination wherever you go in the world, but we’re very lucky here. We don’t come remotely close to what I imagine kids are going through on the mainland – walking home at night fearing for their safety or seeing a black kid from school cornered and pummelled on the street.

‘That’s not to say we don’t have a problem, but it’s far diminished.

‘In Jersey you can have that solidarity of players, so it’s not reliant on referees or a single player. Referees will certainly play a part but it’s not their prime responsibility. Surely the other ten people in a team are stronger than that one person with racist tendencies.’

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