It is possible that we lose a touch of seriousness when fully launched into debate, and that’s no bad thing. Football is not a subject to discuss in straight jacketed conformity, even if opinions may wildly vary. “It is not the ecce how great it is,” the Bishop of Winchester once preached to King James 1 on Christmas Day, “but the gaudium what joy is in it, that is the point we must speak to.” Ol’ Jimmy was no football fan, but the words could so easily be used about football. If the sport cannot be enjoyed, first and foremost, then it has essentially lost its soul.
This week however, there is a matter that goes far beyond even the core principle of enjoyment. Well not just this week of course, but it has reared its head prominently. In truth, institutionalised attitudes of a shamefully significant portion of the powers that be are still to be fully deconstructed. The troubling case of former England boss Mark Sampson being charged with systemic racism towards his players, how it was dealt with and how it had been allowed to come about in the first place is a high-profile example of how little progress has been made at the FA.
There are just 10 coaches of Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds involved with professional first-team football in England. To put it another way, about 4% of the coaching workforce are non-white. So what has been the proposed solution? The Rooney Rule. For those of you who have somehow not read endless news stories covering this, it is a rule stipulating that for every coaching position, at least one BAME candidate must be formally interviewed.
Just over six years ago representatives the NFL – where the rule was born – spoke about its suitability in English football. They were confident it could work over here given the success it had had in America’s game, and were met with mixed reactions. Former Arsenal midfielder Paul David, for example, saw the idea as a crucial stepping stone towards equality. Brendon Batson – one third of Ron Atkinson’s groundbreaking West Brom trio of black player, who suffered horrendous racist abuse – disagreed.
Here’s the thing – and I implore you read through before branding me Tommy Robinson’s right hand man – it’s utter crap. Well what’s the answer then smart-arse? I’ll tell you, and it isn’t rocket science; it’s education. All of the quick-fix artificial answers are at best a cop-out for dealing with the real issue of discrimination, and at worst and cynical way to cosmetically cover up deep-rooted attitudes.
Is it going to be easy? Er, no. Is it going to be quick? Yeah sure, an issue dragging on over centuries can be solved by the next television deal negotiations, no problem. Therein lies one strand of the problem; the need to implement instant answers to an age-old issue.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, then manager of Burton Albion and a rising BAME manager, said a few years back that he’d hate to be handed a job on the colour of his skin, and not on merit. Those who say that the Rooney Rule will at least give minority managers a better chance are missing the point. The rule demands only that candidates are given an interview, though; this is flawed on two grounds.
Firstly, who says the BAME candidates clubs will be obligated to interview will even get the job? The exact same discrimination can quite comfortably take place while at the same time satisfying the regulations. Secondly, as many have pointed out in this debate, almost all professional clubs have a permanently evolving shortlist of vigorously researched possible candidates. Sure, an interview can weed out the less capable candidates, but the bulk of the legwork has already been decided.
What has been curious is how the divide has not fallen down simple colour of skin. Ex-Derby County journeyman Michael Johnson has bemoaned the lack of direct, transparent and effective action, a stance backed up by anti-discrimination body FARE. “Ethnic minorities are being squeezed out of football coaching across professional football,” said group executive director Piara Powar, “despite being highly qualified and job-ready. We urge English football to have the courage and implement a Rooney Rule type of mechanism across the game. There seems to me no other way of addressing this problem.”
The highly-qualified and job-ready part is significant. Batson has said how the standard of BAME coaching qualification needs to be improved, but the disparity between the highly skilled representation on the pitch and the woefully sparse representation off it just can’t be ignored, however tenuous the link between the two spheres of the game may be.
Perhaps even more significant however is the wording of his final sentence; “there seems to be no other way”. It speaks volumes that one of the world’s most respected and influential campaign groups is effectively admitting it is not an ideal solution.
Personally, I would take it one step further and say it is a toxic dead end. Coming down so definitively on a matter as deep and critical as racist discrimination can be delicate. Plenty of readers may be spitting bile at my viewpoint, and I sincerely hope to avoid insulting anyone. If we are to truly cleanse society and football of discrimination, stop-gap solutions must not be trumpeted as positive steps forward – don’t let the cronyism flourish.