Expert Opinion

In terms of discrimination in football we have a long way to go

In this post, Dr Dan Kilvingon, Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, looks at the misjudged comment of Football Association Chief Executive, Martin Glenn, who was forced to apologise for an offensive comment in relation to the FA’s rule banning political symbols.

Dr Dan Kilvington

Football Association Chief Executive, Martin Glenn, has been forced into an embarrassing apology after issuing a statement which completely misunderstood the Star of David and what it represents.

Glenn was speaking out against Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, who has been charged by the FA for wearing the yellow ribbon – a political symbol which supports imprisoned Catalans.

Under FA rules, all political symbols are prohibited on kits, and this clearly extends to the manager’s attire. Symbols considered highly divisive – such as the yellow ribbon – are deemed to fall foul of this rule. Glenn is therefore correct in challenging the use of political symbols.

FIFA, however, had recently rewritten this rule making it okay for the poppy to be worn, a symbol commonly used to commemorate military personnel who had lost their lives in in the line of duty. The FA attest that the poppy’s political significance is ambiguous although it has been politically contested, for instance, by West Bromwich Albion midfielder James McLean. Sport is absolutely political and nationalism is embedded within football rivalries. The Daily Mail’s 2016 headline ‘Poppy War’, in the context of the England football team, is a case in point.

Nonetheless, unlike the poppy, the yellow ribbon breaks with FIFA policy. Yet, in issuing the statement, Glenn displayed a considerable lack of understanding. In speaking out against banned political symbols, he managed to offend the Jewish community by stating that the Star of David is unacceptable, just like the Swastika, and an ISIS badge.

Positioning the Star of David in the same breath as the Swastika is remarkably ill-judged. Whereas the Swastika has become a symbol of hate, fascism and genocide, the Star of David is a symbol of immense importance to Jews worldwide. In fact, the latter symbol takes centre stage on Israel’s flag, it appears on their national team shirt and FA logo. This staggering error adds to a long list of mishaps where the FA continue to say or do the wrong thing. Or, in some cases, do nothing at all.

The FA have endured a turbulent time in recent years with the Mark Sampson and Eniola Aluko debacle while Glenn was similarly criticised in January 2018 after his ‘banter’ comments overshadowed the FA’s launch of the positive action policy – The Rooney Rule. And, by the former FA Chairman, Greg Dyke’s, own admission, the FA is too male and white. In other words, it remains male, pale and stale.

We should no longer be shocked at observing such institutional football faux pas anymore as this is symptomatic of the wider game. Remember when former FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, said that ‘tighter shorts’ would create more fans of female football? Blatter also added that on-field racism can be solved with a post-match handshake. Remember when FIFA disbanded their anti-racism taskforce in 2016 claiming that the job was done?

If discrimination is to be successfully challenged, we must have confidence in the governing bodies. Yet, the latest mishap manages to simultaneously criticise the divisive nature of the yellow ribbon while offending the Jewish population – does this instil confidence? No.

For the last decade I have researched football and racism. I have undertaken hundreds of interviews and listened to the stories of players, fans, coaches and scouts from all levels of the game. My work has explored the exclusion of British Asians within football, explored the barriers Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) coaches encounter, and how overt forms of racism have moved from the stands to social media platforms. Put simply, there are endemic problems and further work is needed to ensure equality in the ‘beautiful game’.

I have a good relationship with personnel at the FA and across several County FA’s and my impression is that the majority are dedicated, passionate and strive for positive social change. Positively and encouragingly, there has been a growth in action and inclusion initiatives in recent years. However, the statement by Glenn illustrates that a lack of awareness and understanding of equality and diversity exists at the very top. It also indicates that there is no role in place to oversee or checks content before being released or published – unlike for politicians.

This gaffe, which marks the latest in a conveyor belt of errors, does not instil confidence in football’s governing body. The Star of David error might have been an oversight, a throwaway comment that backfired. But these blunders appear to happen far too often. And, in the wider context of discriminatory issues in football, as noted previously, it shows that we have a long way to go.

In this incredibly hyper-sensitive and politically correct world in which we now live, a world which I am not criticising, education becomes paramount. Every word is scrutinized. With education, we are fully able to understand the historical, political and cultural significance of racialized and faith based symbols, customs and traditions. I suggest then, that key organizations such as the FA, devote more time and resources to checking and double checking statements and content before releasing. This not only prevents mishaps but also helps educate those writing and issuing the statements.

Dr Daniel Kilvington

Course Director and Reader / School Of Humanities And Social Sciences

Dan's research interests include anti-racism, social media and sport. His book 'Sport and Discrimination' draws on examples from football, rugby, cricket, tennis, climbing, the Olympics and the Paralympics to explore racism, sexism, homophobia, disability and the role of the media in both perpetuating and tackling discrimination in sport.

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