American sport gets a bad rap across the pond from the football-loving British. Whilst interest in the NFL continues to grow – with talk of establishing a new permanent franchise in London following the success of the annual fixture at Wembley – ‘soccer’ remains king. For many, American football is too stop-start and drawn out, baseball too dull and repetitive, and basketball too high-scoring. What’s more, the mere idea of ‘franchises’ – not to mention the draft system and the fixed leagues – is often met with disdain by followers of football and used as supposed proof that Americans just don’t ‘get’ sport.
However, there is one particular and hugely important aspect of stateside sport that football could learn a lot from, and that is its stance on discrimination. The recent events at Wigan Athletic, whereby Malky Mackay (under investigation by the FA for allegedly making a series of racist, homophobic and sexist comments during his time at Cardiff City) was appointed as their manager – a controversial decision defended by club owner Dave Whelan who then proceeded to express bigoted views of his own – highlights how deep-rooted the problem is in football, and more damningly, how the inaction of the game’s governing bodies perpetuates the issue.
UEFA frequently hands out pitiful punishments to clubs whose fans are found guilty of racist behaviour. Sepp Blatter, the most powerful man in the game, once said that racism could be settled with a simple handshake. And while the FA may have charged Whelan for his recent comments, the Wigan owner only decided to appoint Mackay in the first place due to his conviction from inside sources that the FA probe into the Scot’s actions at Cardiff were going nowhere.
Slogans and campaigns such as Say No To Racism and Respect – bandied around every match in a desperate attempt to convince us that something is actually being done about it all – mean nothing if football’s governing bodies continue to approach serious cases such as these with such pathetic leniency. Racism, homophobia and sexism ought to be treated with absolute zero tolerance, and it is here that there is much to be admired from the American approach. The news that Donald Sterling – multi-millionaire and owner of NBA side LA Clippers- was handed a lifetime ban from the sport and fined millions of dollars for making racist comments would be unheard of in football, a game where John Terry was banned for just four matches for aiming a similarly reprehensible racist insult at Anton Ferdinand.
The way in which the NFL has striven to increase the number of black and ethnic minority coaches in the game through the adoption of the Rooney Rule in 2003 also goes to show how progressive American sport is and how seriously it takes issues of discrimination compared to football. It recognises the severity of racism and prejudice and deals with it in a way that puts the so-called ‘beautiful game’ to shame.
If football is to overcome the most toxic ills which have blighted the sport for decades, it must take heed of the American approach. Zero tolerance must mean zero tolerance.
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