The debate over the selection of black footballers who refused to wear the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign t-shirts over the weekend, should encompass so much more than just the garment they were wearing. But it certainly doesn’t feel like it.
The decision of the likes of Jason Roberts, Rio Ferdinand and Joleon Lescott to shun wearing the t-shirts during their respective fixtures on Saturday, signified something of a landmark moment in the fight against racism. For them, there was far more to catalyzing change then simply taking a backseat in a campaign that they clearly felt was pedestrian in its stance and let down in its actions.
Yet perhaps only in the Wild West world of English football, could those instigating change be mistaken for some form of sinister rogue presence. The likes of Ferdinand and Roberts have somehow been maligned in some quarters as ‘wrong’, ‘self-serving’ and ‘counter-productive.’
Having an opinion or a belief that even dares goes against the grain of popular Premier League opinion, doesn’t appear to go down too well with our governing bodies. The way in which players who refused to wear the t-shirts were treated as some form of anti-conformist entity, spoke volumes about attitudes within the English game, and until the likes of the FA, the PFA and the Premier League can manage to get over themselves, don’t expect it to change, either.
Even on a very superficial basis, it feels difficult to get around the initial dismay in some quarters, that a certain group of footballers wouldn’t wear the Kick It Out t-shirts. It’s almost as if some were unable to distinguish the difference between actually wearing the garment, and what it represented. Surely the wearing of the t-shirts amounts to nothing more than an empty gesture, if those wearing it don’t believe enough is being to done to support the cause?
You wouldn’t have thought it though. From the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson demanding, “every player should adhere,” to supporting the PFA backed campaign, to the quite unbelievably patronizing comments from Sports Minister Hugh Robertson, stating that “We were all 20-odd once…but this is a moment for cool heads, not hot ones,” is simply unbelievable.
This notion that every player should conform to something and blindly support it goes against the whole idea in the first place. The fight against racism has not been damaged by some players’ decision to not wear a simple t-shirt. Wearing a t-shirt with a slogan on it during a warm up -which barely many people are likely to see -sends out a positive message, but it is not going to slay the looming shadow of racism in football overnight. Real, decisive and affirmative action, which is what those who refused to wear the t-shirts were instigating for, is what is needed. But the way some are acting, you wouldn’t have thought it.
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No one is denying that Kick It Out have made real strides in the fight against racism, but it is the reaction of those at the top, such as Robertson and the chairman of the campaign itself, Lord Ouseley, that are most disheartening. Lord Ouseley recently said:
“The issue is that the T-shirts have become the story whereas the actual grievances of black players, both current and former, have not come out in the open.”
It’s comments like this, which is why the t-shirts are the issue. Instead of the logical suggestion that black players quite clearly weren’t happy with the efforts of the various governing bodies in the fight against racism, all people seemed concerned with was the actual gesture, that they hadn’t worn them. Again, everything revolves around gestures, as opposed to understanding.
Similarly with Anton Ferdinand’s decision to shun the handshake of John Terry, no one gave credence as to why he had done it. No one seemed to give gravitas to the fact that a handshake is an open gesture of equality and trust, as opposed to some Premier League devised shtick for the cameras. Ferdinand didn’t respect Terry, so why would he shake his hand? Yet, similarly with his brother’s decision to not wear the Kick It Out t-shirt, all that was focused on was the fact he didn’t do it, not why he didn’t do it.
Footballers shouldn’t’ be quelled from having an opinion. No institution, including the Kick It Out campaign, can ever be devoid of improvement and the medium of debate, critique and analysis is important in ensuring that the fight against racism is moving in the right direction.
There is of course a fine line between criticism of both the constructive and negative kind and as vital as it is that those unhappy with Kick It Out air their grievances, it is also necessary that it is not portrayed as a harmful factor. All parties must work together and in tandem to both improve the fight and move forward together. Devising a breakaway group is hardly showing a united front and that’s not what is needed right now. People must remember that Kick It Out’s powers are limited – the real buck stops with the FA.
But it’s time that football’s governing bodies stopped reactively floundering and started understanding. When flashpoints like what we saw at the weekend occur, there can’t be anymore finger pointing, endless politicking and covering of backs when people dare to start asking questions. The questions, like the abandonment of t-shirts, are being asked for a reason.
The Kick It Out campaign doesn’t belong to any individual politician, Lord, manager or footballer, but to the whole of English football. And similarly the campaign is a lot more than billboards, slogans and printed t-shirts. All the components necessary need to be effectively in tandem in order for it to work. The last few days have the ability to catalyse forward progress in the fight against racism. Let’s hope it also helps fix football’s very acute sense of short sightedness.
How do you feel about the critique aimed at Rio Ferdinand and others in the light of the weekend? Let me know how you feel on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me all your views.