I don’t want to blame racism in the game for everything but I do want to blame it for a lot.
As a lifelong Liverpool fan, I am contorted with pride and shame at the moment. Pride in the increasingly convincing return of King Kenny. Shame at the unseemly mess our new hero, Uruguayan Luis Suarez, has plunged us in.
I know, for most football managers, players, fans and supporters, loyalty to the Club is paramount. What is an English football club without steadfast loyalty? Criticism is fine whispered internally but public derision just isn’t football...or at least it certainly is not the Anfield way. For a one-time Kemlyn Road regular, proud to be a black face watching John Barnes weave his magic and become adored by the harshest of football critics, The Kop, there are definite pangs of shame.
So proud and fearless was I in fact that I still chuckle at the memory of having to scuttle off early before the end of 90 minutes to avoid the less friendly elements of our own support on a rare rough day. Back then we were kings of all we surveyed. Aldridge, Barnes, Houghton, Souey and co. were imperious and we knew it. Yet, more than once my ebony skin led to a confrontation, only for a friendly Liverpudlian to chastise my misguided agressor with the kindest of retorts – “Forget it, you idiot, he’s one of us”. That simple retort has carried me for as long as I can remember. I only have to think of the feeling and I know, I am one of them and am immediately comforted. It’s why, now that we run our own sports foundation, in the midst of the burning Caribbean Sun, I still remain loyal....gently chastising those local impoverished local youth we work with for carrying the fickle colours of other tribes, most notably Man. U, Chelsea and Arsenal. You see, sport and football in particular, has such wonderful healing power, such unnerving ability to transcend differences that matters of race, creed and colour....class or circumstance, can easily be forgotten.
In truth, no one in professional, or for that matter semi-professional, association football really cares about anything other than the progress of a 430g air-filled sphere with a circumference of 70cm. Everyone knows that everything rests on winning and losing. But even in this truth is a contorted reality, that most people of colour know only too well. As much as a healing force, I have heard credible arguments that sport could be the most detrimental of socially acceptable past times. For within its core. in the essential goal – to win or to lose - is a powerful twisting agent.
Imagine being a gifted young footballer, turning up for a trial as a right winger at your boyhood club only to be left on the sidelines never to kick a ball. Being so disillusioned that you almost give up the game, only to be redeemed by a friend’s father – who happened to be a coach at the local Second Division club. As a replay of earlier trials unfolds, a glint of light appears with calls from the coaches for a left back. Fearful of never getting a chance to show his stuff off, he pretends that he was a natural left back. He shined, even though he’d never played the position in his life. He went on to become the club’s first team left back...even though they didn’t realise he was right footed for more than a year. So skilled that he now holds the club’s all-time appearance record.
A success of determination, undoubted skill and will that brightens the heart. Yet, within this triumph is a telling truth, this black jewel could have and should have played for Liverpool. Offered terms more than once by the Anfield giant and some of the biggest clubs in the country, he preferred to play in lesser surroundings in large part because he was unsure just how he would have been received by players, officials and supporters of more prestigious clubs.
Those days are long gone......aren’t they. I mean, there’s no reason to think that people of colour are not getting a fair shake from the game now is there? I mean, in a professional sport where 25% of the players are black, could there really be racial issues when 98 percent of the management is white. I mean, it’s football afterall, the only thing that matters is winning right!
Well, actually, wrong. Just three percent of the UK population is classified as Black. The astounding success of football players is one of the best examples of change there is. A quarter of all players is an amazing accomplishment given a management class that remains stubbornly white.
The banana throwing may have gone from the terraces but football’s hierarchy still remains uncomfortably uneasy with black professional managers. I suppose that’s partly because many prospective candidates are equally uneasy with their place in the game. In less than four decades, the multi-racial face of the game has changed. Yet, the underlying reality is that people of colour in the English game are often forced to pretend. Forced to be a team player and in so doing....distort there natural instincts, stunt their growth and play for and to the largely white crowd.
Even amid this success of black players there is an equally unflattering statistic, that the six percent of Asian population is almost without any representation in the professional UK football ranks. How is it possible for our Asian brothers to be so unskilled at football? Or could racism be at play here, in some small way?
YES. It hurts doesn’t it. When the game we love, is so clearly flawed. Perhaps, what hurts more is the truth that change is not actually on the horizon. That things, aren’t really getting better. That Luis Suarez and...dare I say it....England captain John Terry.....can utter vicious taunts.....is, well, part of sport.
And, we of all know it is. If you can put a great player off his game...just a little, what’s the harm? The fact that the repeated slurs and forced changes in position and style of play and lack of opportunities, serves to twist the ideal of sportsmanship and pure beauty of the game we love is all fair in winning and losing. Isn’t it? But what does it do to the character of the people of colour we have in sport today. My biggest concern and the driving force behind Sport in Black and White, a forum for change, is that the personality of many of our most alluring images is warped.
I believe racism in football has shattered the endearing character of many of our wealthiest and most notable figures. I am sorry to say, as someone that has mixed with black managers and players all my life, that character is sadly lacking in the majority. The years of contorted striving to survive in a profession governed through a blindingly white prism has twisted egos and inflated personalities on both sides of the lens, as our bright and beautiful young men and women hide their lack of exposure and flaws. The flashy bravado and bold unwittingly dense public pronouncements of black football professionals has left a huge void. Few have been able to cope with the demands of a sport that changes them beyond recognition. Fewer still have successfully been able to negotiate the minefield that is upper echelon football politricks.
I don’t want to blame racism in the game for everything but I do want to blame it for a lot. Most importantly, churning out, characterless individuals unable to organise themselves into a powerful lobby for change. In what other industry would you find 25 percent of the workforce, crying behind the scenes about being abused and doing little or nothing to change that reality. You see, the de-characterisation of our black and Asian football family has led to a lack of credible representation on decision making bodies. Just look over the pond at the US and see what has happened in sports such as basketball and football. The power of black athletes is supreme for one reason and one reason only. Education. While I abhor the enforced system of semi-professional skulduggery often called college sports, I believe it has had a powerful positive effect on producing intelligent well rounded characters. Characters able to decide their own fate. If you watched as I did, when Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh manipulated proceedings a season or so ago, to take effective control of their own destinies, it was a telling moment. There stood businessmen, not athletes but players deciding amongst themselves what was in their own best interests.
How I wish for even small evidence of this in Europe or the UK. Players of colour, organised in their own interests. You see, while we talk sport, we often forget that at the professional level it is a business and our black UK youngsters are ill-equipped to cope with the demands. Not just because of societal failings but because the sport we love has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Race is a weapon to be used and abused, if subtlety, against us from a very early age. It is good to see systems and programmes being put in place to tackle such issues.....yet at the professional level...it is clear...that little has changed in the management of the game to suggest real, effective empowering change is on the horizon.
Either, you become battle hardened and empowered by it or twisted and contorted like most of our sporting youth. Let us not forget. That the world of sport mirrors society at large. And there’s lots of research to show that people still feel threatened by me because I am black. Those good old stereo types I hoped I’d shed, continue to persist. It hurts when I see that people of a different race see me as a potential danger to their safety and often choose to keep their distance even though I’m not a threat.
In one Michigan study I read it was found that 45 percent of US whites think blacks are lazy. That some 29 percent think blacks are unintelligent. The survey said that less than one in five think Blacks are hard working and 56 percent of whites felt blacks would rather live on welfare than work. While the location and environment of the study could contribute to the results, so could the harsh reality in the US that the unemployment rate of African Americans is 15.5 percent, whereas the unemployment rate for whites is 7.6 percent This “reality” also perhaps contributes to the feeling of apparent racial superiority.
Change in society and sport is hard. It requires fortitude, focus and an iron will. Just ask the mother of Stephen Lawrence, who has waited some 19 years for a modicum of justice for the brutal killing of their son. I am proud to say as chairman of the Sacred Sports Foundation, the organisation founded by my late brother Keith Alexander, that he had the character to enact change. His struggles as a player to both be successful and retain his own identity, helped build a fiercely intelligent character, with great wit and tremendous humility and determination. His success as one of the first Black UK professional managers in the English game is a testament to his spirit and ability to rise above even the most shocking cultural and racial discrimination.
Keith understood the impact of racism only too well from his own personal experiences and was actively working to ensure that the power of sport was utilised positively. That is why we hope to be an active catalyst for change. Sport in Black and White will focus on actively looking for and implementing game changing solutions. We will be writing regularly on issues of importance to help spark the debate and to be a catalyst for change.
At a micro level the Foundation will continue to aim to positively change the lives of those we work with, providing opportunities for people of colour from all around the world. At a Macro level, we hope to influence and force our sporting family to actively debate and change those practices that have served to disempower large numbers of participants in the most socially life affirming activity there is. Sport!