Long Reads

Football’s quest for symptom-free racism

It is clear that we have reached a stage in British society where large sections of the public want us to believe that racism is name-calling, abuse, sometimes a lack of diversity but most of all a matter of personal attitude. Therefore, those that are “accepting of a multi-cultural society” deem it impossible for them themselves to be racist, as they go about their daily lives for the most part avoiding this type of prejudice. English football and its media outlets are the poster child for this institutional-racism-denying philosophy. Of course, there are those in society, notably amongst the political elite, who know exactly what racism is. They understand the material, exploitative, unequal nature as the operating condition of society and that it is about life chances, freedom, opportunities, the economy etc. This racism has often been compared to a disease that kills, so of course, it will have symptoms that discriminate.

Naturally, this brings us to English football(!) and its biggest media outlets. These give us a window into firstly, the British public’s lack of understanding of what racism is and secondly, its unwillingness to do anything about it. Once we see the clear separation between the disease and the symptoms in the world of football, we realise that it is the symptoms of racism that have mildly irked some of football’s most prominent voices, and so they have embarked on a quest to rid themselves of these inconveniences.

Leeds United footballer Patrick Bamford was recently interviewed amid the Super League controversy, where some of English football’s biggest clubs tried to engineer a breakaway competition along with other notable European teams. The idea was to create a closed shop where their elite status could be permanently guaranteed, regardless of results, while controlling their own tv revenue thus bringing all the riches and profitability to grow their franchises further. Bamford, seeing the huge mobilisation and protest that this capitalist power-grab had caused, commented on the reactions of UEFA, Sky Sports and other footballing bodies that were vocally hostile to, and threatened by, the Super League idea: “It’s amazing all the drama that happens when it touches someone’s pockets — it’s a shame it’s not like that for other things going on at the minute, like racism.” Amazingly, when the interview had finished and they cut back to the Sky Sports studio where prominent anti-Super League cheerleaders Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher were, Patrick Bamford’s words were unanimously praised. The pundits did not seem to realise they were some of the targets Bamford was alluding to. Not only did Neville and Carragher completely miss the point Bamford was making, but they also blamed the Super League colluders for taking attention away from an apparently vital anti-racist theme Sky Sports had planned for that weekend (Sky Sports were launching a ‘NO ROOM FOR RACISM’ campaign which will be discussed later). The entire anti-Super League mobilisation, as Bamford points out, was a great indicator of where Sky and BT’s priorities lie. This was a project that would indeed ‘hurt their pockets’ – whereas racism simply does not. It is only when the symptoms of racism creep into their subjects (footballers) lives that they decide to do something (however meaningless) about it. Sky Sports and BT Sport are simply on a quest for symptom-free racism.

“There is simply no way that had a World Cup been awarded to a European nation and thousands of white British workers had died, it would still be going ahead, especially not with teams of pundits from Sky and BT covering it all”

Football has recently jumped on the anti-racism bandwagon, where its most prominent sports media companies –Sky Sports and BT Sport–have dedicated a considerable amount of airtime to their supposed anti-racist stances. Emanating from the public lynching of George Floyd by a police officer in the US in May 2020, and its subsequent protest movements worldwide, English football decided to back the campaign for Black lives mattering. Taking a knee was the first symbolic step in football. Its aim was to apparently stand in solidarity against racial injustice and Black people being murdered by police officers. Before the start of each game, every player would take the knee for a few seconds, while the Sky or BT commentator would say a few words about how the football community was behind this initiative for Black lives mattering. Sky Sports also added the words ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ next to their in-game scoreboard, appearing as the clock approached the 9th minute in every football match it broadcasted; a nod to the amount of time police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck. It was clear for all to see the cause they were standing in solidarity with, though what followed in the coming months and the rest of the season was a slow morphing of that gesture of solidarity and a huge watering-down of sentiment. As protests in the UK and worldwide gained momentum in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, the predictable backlash in the British media commenced. “The UK isn’t the US,” said prominent politicians, “Black Lives Matter are a political, Marxist organisation,” said others. The usual ‘troublemaker’ rhetoric has been a constant feature in the British media during every anti-racist protest and Black uprising in memory. Sky Sports reacted to this and the back-peddling began. Soon there were rumours of TV pundits from the BBC and Sky being told to no longer wear badges displaying the term “BLACK LIVES MATTER” during live broadcasts. The commentators’ wording during the taking of the knee started to change too, it was now apparently a gesture directed “against individual racists” then “against all forms of discrimination” and then “against all forms of abuse” and then “to stop discriminatory behaviour” etc.

In the midst of all this reversing and message-wrangling, attention was drawn to incidents on social media of racist abuse directed at footballers including Marcus Rashford, Wilfred Zaha and Axel Tuanzebe. Sky and BT mobilised and found these incidents of racist abuse online a much more comfortable setting to pitch their movement’s tent. But these instances, however abhorrent, are as the popular metaphor goes: symptoms of racism aka the discriminative effects of racism. They are inevitable when we have a society built on the disease that is racism. Nevertheless, the sports media companies had found their target in online abuse and ‘NO ROOM FOR RACISM’ was the new catchphrase, which turned into the campaign: ‘AGAINST ONLINE HATE’. This entire performative movement from Sky and BT was launched and maintained off the back of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, at the hands of the police – as well as the global solidarity and radical mobilising in its aftermath.

Yet in just a matter of months, the Premier League’s media coverage, with the help of British politicians, had completely disassociated their performative gestures with any kind of anti-racism and Black Lives Matter movements and had instead focussed all of their attention on the symptoms affecting their stars. Sky Sports were so oblivious to the problematic way in which they co-opted this movement, that they aired a campaign video on the final day of the Premier League season in May 2021, which, coincided closely enough to the one-year ‘anniversary’ of George Floyd’s murder. The video started by literally mentioning the events in Minneapolis, asking current players their thoughts on the horrific murder, yet just as it happened during the course of the season, the narrative suddenly shifted onto online abuse only, and Floyd’s name was not mentioned again during the entire segment. Once again, using real racism that kills as a springboard towards their quest for a happy, healthy symptom-free racist game.

Another Sky Sports campaign video, that perfectly illustrates the journey of depoliticization, dilution and co-optive tactics that the football media use in these situations is their ‘Why I Take the Knee’ promotional video, also featuring current Premier League players. In this video, each player describes in one short sentence why they “take the knee”. We mostly hear the same watered-down reasons that the commentators had pivoted to over the course of the season: “to stop abuse of all forms,” “it is a personal choice” etc. However, the key contributions come from Wes Morgan of Leicester City, who states, “This is not political,” – as well as Jordan Henderson, the captain of Liverpool F.C. who declared, “I take the knee in the fight against inequality.”

One year on from the cries that Black lives matter, the anti-racist messages and the global solidarity comes this vague, tepid and co-optive manoeuvre that reassures the British public that they don’t intend to do anything about actual racism–that’s political!–but they are interested in stopping online abuse and name-calling, and they will not stop [co-opting movements] until this is achieved.

“Another key event that the entire football community has completely ignored is the murder of ex-footballer Dalian Atkinson, at the hands of the police in 2016”

Sky Sports and BT Sport may be serious about tackling racism and all other forms of discrimination™ directed at footballers on social media, and they may have legitimate reasons beyond it bothering their subjects (footballers). However, until they understand that this type of abuse is a symptom of racism and that treating the symptom alone instead of the disease will not get us anywhere, they are doomed to perform this meaningless cycle over and over again. The solution for us is to simply stop looking to these media outlets and their conduit-football-stars to be our guiding light for anti-racism.

There is real-world life-debilitating racism happening in the world of football that is routinely ignored by these very same companies and pundits. Take FIFA and its awarding of the World Cup 2022 to Qatar for example, where a ‘significantly higher’ number than the reported 6,500 migrants from South Asia and Africa have died since in Qatar since World Cup awarded. In reportedly dangerous conditions and the unbearable heat in Qatar, migrant labour has been responsible for the building of a brand-new airport, roads, public transport systems, hotels and a new city, all in service to host the world’s most prestigious football competition. That so many people have died during the major construction projects in Qatar is apparently OK because these migrants were Brown and not from Britain. There is simply no way that had a World Cup been awarded to a European nation and thousands of white British workers had died, it would still be going ahead, especially not with teams of pundits from Sky and BT covering it all.

“There are numerous avenues to fight against but it is clear that in the hands of the British football media and their weak, co-optive messaging, none of these issues can be solved”

Another key event that the entire football community has completely ignored is the murder of ex-footballer Dalian Atkinson, at the hands of the police in 2016. Atkinson, who played with, and against many of the pundits currently involved with Sky, BT and BBC, was brutally murdered by the police in Shropshire: tasered EIGHT times during a 4-minute period and then kicked in the head “as though striking a football, causing his head to snap back violently.” The officers involved were PC Benjamin Monk and PC Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith. Here was an incident much like the George Floyd murder, where the existing fact of disproportionate use of deadly force by the police towards Black people, including tasers, is widely known. Yet the reaction from the football community has been one of silence. Where is the outcry, the mobilisation, the protests? Why is football so concerned with only symptoms that inconvenience their participants and audiences, yet do not bat an eyelid towards the life-threatening disease that is baked into its industry.

To be clear, symptoms or discriminative effects of racism should absolutely be fought against as well. Those like the miraculous absence of South Asian footballers in Britain’s top divisions, the astoundingly low number of Black managers in the football league compared to its players, the routinely racist and stereotypical way that Black players are described and criticised in football punditry, UEFA’s pathetic punishments dished out to clubs and nations found guilty of racist chanting and abuse, and the disciplining of footballers who dare to take an anti-racist stance due to being labelled “political”. There are numerous avenues to fight against yet it is clear that in the hands of the British football media and their weak, co-optive messaging, none of these issues can be solved. It is not in their interest. The sooner we realise this fact, the sooner we stop looking to, and participating in, their performative charades–the sooner we mobilise together and do something about their violent silence. We are on to them, we know their quest for symptom-free racism and we cannot play along anymore.


Ruth Wilson Gilmore – Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. 2007

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: