The Persistent Problem of Racism in English Football
The Panopticon is an interesting structure. It was designed in the late 18th century by Jeremy Bentham, a prominent English philosopher, widely credited as the founder of modern utilitarianism. The primary purpose of the structure was to allow a single “watchman” to observe all individuals present in the structure without them knowing whether they are being observed or not. Due to this lack of knowledge, they were expected to regulate their own behavior. This structure was primarily theorized for prisons – as a clandestine mechanism of surveilling inmates simultaneously. The panopticon architecture inspired a number of prison architectures, from the Lancaster Castle Gaol (jail) in Lancaster, England, to the Insein Prison in Yangon, Burma. But the structure has a very curious reference to the prevalence of racism in football. Here’s how.
The English Premier League is arguably, the most competitive and, the most widely followed football (soccer) league in the world. With an approximate viewership of 12 million people per game, its revenue solely from broadcasting rights regularly exceeds the GDP of some African countries. The league provides an exquisite platform for some of the best football talent on the planet. However this veneer of sporting brilliance, concocted by a so-called “pantheon of club football” had been stained by allegations of racism long before most of us learnt how to even kick a football.
One of the more recent victims of racism was Raheem Sterling, a shining star in Manchester City’s constellation of attacking talent. The incident took place on December 8 when at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s home ground, City lost 2-0 to the home team. Chelsea, along with the police, immediately launched an investigation and have already suspended four fans. Manchester City also released a statement supporting the investigations:
"The club and Raheem are fully engaged with Chelsea FC and the investigating authorities as they continue to examine the events in question..”.
Colin Wing, one of the four individuals who was suspended, gave a statement in the Daily Mail :
"I'm deeply ashamed by my own behavior… I want to apologise unreservedly to Raheem and hope he can be a better man than I am by accepting it.”
Colin and other suspended individuals admitted to swearing on Raheem but denied any racist chants. While this is neither the first, nor (sadly) the last time a black player has faced racism in the Premier League, in English football or for that matter, in sport generally, it forces us to (again) ask the question: How much is too much?
This is not the first time that Chelsea faithful have been involved in allegations of racism. In the late 1970’s, West Bromwich Albion, aka the Hawthorns, became the first British side to field three black players – Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson. This trio was often called the Three Degrees, named after an American female vocal group. It was a halcyon period for the team, managed by Ron Atkinson. In their 3-1 win over Chelsea, Laurie Cunningham scored two fantastic goals. Both of the goals were greeted with aggressive booing from the Chelsea fans. Throughout the match there were prolonged periods of booing since the “three black players were touching the ball a lot”.
The Blues’ faithful haven’t been too kind on their own players, either. Paul Canoville, signed from Hillingdon Borough in 1981, was the first black player to play for Chelsea. During a match when he was warming up on the sidelines, Chelsea supporters started screaming statements like ‘Sit down, you black c*nt’ and then started to chant ‘We don’t want the n*igger, we don’t want the n*gger, la la la la’. In 1984, Lord Herman Ouseley, a proponent of ethnic minority rights who later went on to establish the Kick It Out campaign for promoting equality in football, approached the then Chelsea Chairman Ken Bates to discuss the issue. According to Lord Ouseley’s account of the meeting, when Mr. Bates was prompted to take action on the issue,
“He [Mr. Bates] said [that] they [Chelsea] didn't have a problem, and that the security people will see me off the site.(sic.) And some big goons in their anoraks saw me off the premises.”
Now, the problem of racism is by no means restricted to Chelsea, clubs such as Millwall, Leeds, Everton and Spurs have all had a history of racism. It is therefore, important to understand that this, or any Op-Ed article, cannot do justice to adequately address the plight of black players in football, and the injustice they have faced over the years. The author’s primary motive is to highlight a crucial aspect of the problem that shall become more apparent with this final example, before returning to the panopticon.
Stanley Collymore was born to a Barbadian father and an English mother. He played for notable English clubs like Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and in 1997 he was signed by Aston Villa for £7 million, making him their most expensive signing at that time. In a game against his former club Liverpool, he claimed that Liverpool defender Steve Harkness called him a “n*igger”, a “coon” and made statements such as ‘Your mother slept with a coon’. Harkness vehemently denied the allegations and when Collymore reported the incident to the Football Association (FA), it ruled that the Association could not take an action because it was one player’s word against the other. In 2012, Collymore received an offensive tweet from a student at Newcastle University:
"@StanCollymore has anyone ever referred to you as semi pro as in a semi pro coon #neitherwhitenorblack.”
When he reported this to the police, the student was sentenced to 200 hours of community service.
The underlying commonality is apparent in the aforementioned examples - lack of appropriate action from the authorities. On paper, there have been many encouraging developments, the 6 point plan introduced in 2012 by the FA and the implementation of the Rooney rule are some examples. However, recent instances of racism serve a jolting reminder to English football – it hasn’t come as far as it thinks. In this panopticon of football players, it seems that the authorities merely represent the structure of the watchman’s tower rather than watchmen. The “inmates”, the alleged perpetrators of racism who are aware of the existence of an authority, do not fear it because the authority has abdicated responsibility. Thus, instead of self-regulation they continue to stretch the fabric of human decency. Perhaps its time for the authorities to ask themselves – How far is too far?
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About the Author
Aditya Tamar is a final year Electronics and Communications Engineering student at SRM IST, Kattankulathur, Tamil Nadu. He has had an excellent academic record throughout his schooling and has been actively involved in a number of co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Aditya aspires to be an Astrophysicist, and when he is not getting sucked into solving fundamental questions related to Black Holes (pun intended) and Galaxies, he actively takes part in Model UN Conferences and Debates. Furthermore, he is an avid football fan, with his allegiance currently being split between his favourite player and his favourite club. Aditya has always had a penchant for world politics and in his articles, you can expect cogency in analysis and research.