Football's Window To British Racism

By Lahai J Samboma

The dust has more or less settled in the fallout from British football pundit Ron Atkinson's recent racist remarks about African footballer Marcel Desailly of Chelsea Football Club. After calling the player a "fucking lazy thick nigger" live on TV – albeit he was not to know his microphone was still on – 'Big Ron' has been promptly relieved of both his £200,000-a-year job as an ITV football commentator and his equally lucrative sports column in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

ronatkinson1.jpgNot surprisingly, a suitably contrite Atkinson (pictured left) later paraded himself round the media claiming he was "not a racist", almost sobbingly revealing how "disgusted" he was with himself for this "slip of tongue". "I've given as many black players the chance to succeed in football as I would think anyone else," he said. Who would not deliver such a virtuoso performance if there were several hundred thousand pounds riding upon feigning remorse?


What was indeed surprising was the coverage of the issue in sundry media. From the rightwing Daily Telegraph newspaper to the left-leaning Guardian – and those representing shades in between – the story was handled in an all too lamentably familiar fashion.

The Telegraph editorial was unequivocal in its condemnation of the former Manchester United manager, but even while reading it you knew there had to be a catch. "If the Atkinson excuse held water, Hitler could have got off the hook by employing a few Jews, and Thomas Jefferson could have justified ownership of his slaves because one of them became his mistress and bore him a child," the editorial thundered.

And the catch? This was provided by other Telegraph writers, the gist of whose contributions were that "Big Ron" was an all-round good guy, always good fun to be around and that he was not really a racist; he should not have said what he said, had apologised for it and that should be that. Fellow football pundit Clive Tyldesley wrote: "You have only got to look at the composition of Ron's football teams to know he is not a practicing racist. His humour and vocabulary have been sharpened in the laddish surroundings of football dressing rooms where insults are common parlance. He has ridden along the boundary lines countless times before and yet he hasn't got an enemy in the world. It's Big Ron for God's sake."

If this message was not telegraphed properly, here was Patrick Barclay to ram it home: "It was a weak reflex...we are getting things out of proportion. There is a difference between bigotry and a blunder and Atkinson, I hope, will return before too long. With the same mike. And a wiser head."

                                                                       Ugly Side

In the Guardian, chief sports writer Vivek Chaudhary said "[Atkinson's] comments have merely helped to highlight the serious challenges that still face the 'beautiful game' as it attempts to tackle its ugly side." The paper's editorial, after comparing Atkinson's remarks with those of Richard Desmond, the proprietor of Britain's Express newspapers, who had earlier labelled all Germans Nazis, concluded that "both outbursts actually show how far there is still to go, in the media as in football, about behaving properly and treating others with respect."

desailly.jpgThis fairly representative snapshot of how the British media treated the incident leaves much to be desired. On the one hand, they claim to understand the full import and significance of Atkinson's racist remarks and rightly castigate him for it. But, almost in the same breath contradict themselves by opining that his "gaffe" was a "mistake" – and that his self-serving, grovelling apology should herald his speedy rehabilitation. Otherwise, they stick their heads in the sand in the well-nigh unshakeable belief – for it can only be that, not demonstrable fact – that football just happens to be one of the two remaining bastions of racism in British society. This chorus could not have been performed better had they been singing from the same hymn book!

However much the Fourth Estate with its considerable power may try to disguise, or deny it, the Atkinson affair is much more than just about football, or the bigoted banter of a "laddish", ignorant man. In many ways it provides an insight into the nature of the phenomenon of racism as it affects – and destroys – the lives not only of blacks in Britain, but of millions of black people living in societies where they form a minority.

                                                                 Ron’s Racist Mindset

Here was a "respected" former football manager, feted by the media and hailed by the football glitterati as "one of us". As he himself pointed out, he had engaged lot of black players in his day, among them the famous "Three Degrees" of Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis. Some of these black signings were predictably trotted out to defend him. But they must have felt nauseated as they were mouthing

the words required of them for, as has now been documented, Big Ron has exhibited his racist mindset and attitudes throughout his not-so-brilliant career as both footballer and manager.

During the 1990 World Cup he made racist comments about a Cameroon player while covering the England/Cameroon match for ITV. Then, Atkinson said of the player that he "didn't have a brain". His co-commentator, Brian Moore, tried to correct him: "You mean a football brain, don't you, Ron?" Believing that his words would not be heard on air, Atkinson said, "I'll only get in trouble if his mother is watching the game sitting in a tree." ITV, who received an official complaint about this, did nothing and have since refused to comment on it.

As the former Arsenal striker Ian Wright said in the Daily Mirror: "Every time I see Ron Atkinson he is making the latest popular racist joke at me and I dont really want to hear that."

All of this begs the question of how, if this man's racist views were so abhorent, did he rise to football's dizzy heights and subsequently become a highly-sought-after and "respected" pundit, paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to dole his particularly vile and pernicious brand of racist crap on prime-time television and other high-brow media? And it was not as if these views were secret; far from it, they were apparently well-known among his peers and others in football and the media. The obvious answer that presents itself is that his views about blacks "did not matter", so long as he could get the job done, whatever that entailed at every juncture during his long, ignominous and now, hopefully, aborted career.

                     Endemic Football Racism

If his racist views did not hinder his progress up the greasy pole, one must conclude it must have helped him along the way – and this is not as farfetched as it may sound when you consider the endemic nature of racism in football. This is the game in which well over half the players in the premiership are black, but in which there are less than a handful of Black managers. If Big Ron's laddishness and jocularity were part of his persona, then so was his penchant for the racist joke. You do not need a particularly creative imagination to picture Ron-the-Lad, that big, jovial, back-slapping Scot, off-mike and bar-side, cracking racist jokes with people who would never consider themselves of his ilk.

Increasingly, given the multifarious claims from friends about his non-racist bona fides, it is becoming clear that, in their eyes, Atkinson's real crime was that, in a manner of speaking, he was caught "red-mouthed". Or, as his pal Clive Tyldesley would no doubt have put it, he should have stayed a "non-practicing racist" – in other words, not get caught. The fact that he hired Black players in the past is a testament to the talent of those men, not to any higher motivation on his part. He wanted his teams to win and believed these "niggers" would help him achieve that.

Now, if we transpose these particular circumstances onto the British workplace as a whole – for what is the football community if not a microcosm of the society of which it forms a part – we begin to see how racism has blighted the lives of millions of black people in majority white or non-black countries such as Britain and the USA.

In sports like football or American football, a manager who wants his team to come out on top, or at the very least become a top contender, would have to pick the best person for the job irrespective of their skin colour. However, in other areas of work, say in trade or the professions, a racist employer – even a 'non-practicing' one – would have a free hand to act according to his concious or sub-concious prejudices. Could you imagine Big-Ron-the-Bank-Chairman sanctioning the hiring a black-as-soot, jungle bunny like yours truly as his treasurer or a non-executive director? Not on your sweet life! You get my drift?

 Social Context

This is the context in which social facts such as discrimination in the workplace, Blacks being passed over for promotion, glass ceilings in workplace hierarchies, or even Black kids' exclusion from school and to some extent the breakdown of the black family unit must be seen. An example close to home springs to mind, when this writer rose to become Credit Manager of a company called Digital Vision a couple of years ago. He was eventually sacked when he accused his line manager of being racist towards him. Most black adults you meet will have their own variation on this theme. Many get up off the ground, dust themselves off and move on; some do not, or can not.

It is self-evident that the problem of racism can not be tackled successfully without a lead from government. But, sadly, in Britain in particular, the government has all but declared open season on minorities with, among other things, its anti-migrant rabble-rousing about so-called bogus refugees and illegal immigrants – all of which have to a large extent been legislated into official government policy in a bid to outflank the respectable and the far right in the run up to elections.

Such pronouncements and statutory encouragement can only serve to embolden the racist element, be it overt and violent, or subtle and pernicious. As Rodney King, the black motorist mercilessly beaten up by racist Los Angeles police in 1991, famously said, "Why can't we all just get along?"

So, in conclusion, we very respectfully beg to differ; this is not just about football - it is about an egregious phenomenon that has blighted the lives of of black people since the era of slavery through to the present day, where the epithet of "nigger" continues to resonate with its various connotations of "alien", "inhuman", "sub-human", "animal" and, last but not least, "dog". And anyone, including our colleagues in the British Fourth Estate who have now conveniently swept the issue under the carpet,that affects that racism persists only in football, or the media, is being intellectually dishonest to the point of criminality.

This piece was originally published in May 2004