‘Show Racism the Red Card’: Anti-Racist activism in the world of football

Patrick Brankov de Blanco

Following the end of the Second World War, The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave citizens of British colonies the right to settle in the UK to encourage people to help with Britain's post-war reconstruction. As a result of mass labour shortages in the Caribbean, many chose to use the Act to their advantage and emigrate to the UK, resulting in the arrival of numerous children of the ‘Windrush generation’ who would later become household names in football.

With an increase in numbers of ethnic minorities in Britain, there was a spike in the number of black football players in English leagues too. This provided an arena for a spike in racism to occur in a more overt-fashion than it previously had done in Britain, resulting in a shift away from the stereotypical covert nature of racism inherent in its society.

With the increase in visible and overt racism, typified by the infamous incident of John Barnes in 1988, “racism in the football terraces and in the stands [was] easier to identify than the semi-institutional forms that tend to characterise professional football culture” and this is what anti-racist campaigns and organisations such as Kick It Out and others have attempted to combat. However, consensus on the success of these campaigns is difficult to reach.

Anti-Racist Campaigns

Concerned with the alarming number of incidences involving racial harassment, the Campaigns Unit at the Commission for Racial Equality sought to create an anti-racist scheme and thus, create Black Activism within sport.
Following its inception in 1993, ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’, later known as ‘Kick It Out’, became one of the most significant anti-racist organisations within football. This is partly due to its success in raising awareness over the extent of racism within football and its influence on other smaller Black Activism sports campaigns to follow suit, such as the creations of ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ and ‘Football Unites, Racism Divides’ (FURD).
By January 1995, 91 clubs across the top leagues had subscribed to the ‘Kick It Out’ scheme thus declaring their support for it and their defiance to racism. This was hoped to be achieved by focusing on young people, their education and more visible approaches such as implementation of anti-racist banners around stadiums, thereby creating an anti-racist awareness.

In addition to uniting almost 100 clubs from the top English football leagues, another measure of success can be examined by the consequent creation of other anti-racist campaigns that used the impetus of Kick It Out to their advantage. Organisations such as ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ and FURD were created in 1996. Run in conjunction with Yorkshire Police, FURD has been described as “one of the most successful partnership initiatives” after addressing prevalent racism found at Sheffield United Football Club’s stadium, Bramall Lane. FURD successfully helped a number of minority ethnic young people achieve FA coaching badges, partnered with the club’s fanzine ‘Flashing Blade’ and provided educational resource packs similar to those found in Civil Rights activism.

These methods led to the highest ever attendance percentage of black fans at Bramall Lane in the 1997/98 season, just 1 year after the initiative was created, demonstrating a decrease in reluctance of ethnic minorities to enter spaces that they once felt unwelcome in. This partnership, combined with support from a fan organisation such as ‘Flashing Blade’ magazine, demonstrates how fans respond well to these types of approaches to tackling racism – a combination of an outside agency and its ‘legitimation’ through club endorsement.

Parallels with Civil Rights Activism

In comparison to Black Power organisations present in the UK, and other Civil Rights activism in the US, it is apparent that there exists a multitude of similarities between these organisations and the anti-racist football campaigns.

For example, in the spring of 1970, the youth wing of the South East London Parents Organisation (SELPO) created their own independent Black Power organisation in Lewisham. Providing varying community services, supplementary education was offered as a result of the “stigmatization of [ethnic minority] children as educationally subnormal at school”. In addition, plays were also a common way to educate and disseminate Black Power politics and African culture and literature.

These methods of dealing with racism and discrimination by providing safe spaces for education of ethnic minorities bears uncanny resemblances with anti-racist campaign strategies found in football, such as ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ in the North East and more specifically, Leyton Orient F.C.’s commissioning of Arc Theatre Ensemble in 1995/6 following the creation of Kick It Out in 1993.

‘Show Racism the Red Card’ gained traction in 1996/7 following its success of targeting schoolchildren through their education using the means of two anti-racist videos. These videos featured famous players discussing racism in football and was complimented with educational resource packs and relevant classroom activity to be discussed by the schoolchildren. This gained so much popularity that clubs like Leicester City and West Ham United bought “hundreds of copies of the video for distribution to local schools”, demonstrating that even regional anti-racist campaigns can become national in scope.

Using the momentum that the ‘Let’s Kick Racism’ campaign had caused since its creation, Leyton Orient F.C. sought to use theatre plays with an anti-racist agenda to also educate schoolchildren and communicate sentiments of their scheme. Commissioning the Arc Theatre Ensemble, their play ‘Kicking it Out’ went on to be performed 581 times to over 110,000 13-16-year olds, dealing with issues such as exclusion and racist stereotyping. Similarly to the videos created by ‘Show Racism the Red Card’, this was also accompanied by educational resource packs. Consequently, its success gave way for a sequel which focused on themes of racism experienced by Asian communities in Britain and also the 1960s Montgomery bus boycott in the United States. 

Media Portrayal

Despite these anti-racist campaigns, by examining the media we see that racism is still prevalent, and without help from the media itself then a change in attitude will only decrease in pace.

For example, Raheem Sterling, an England international football player for Manchester City (who like the aforementioned John Barnes, originally hails from Jamaica) has been subject to varying degrees of overt racism – from booing to having banana skins thrown at them.

Arguably, the media’s negative portrayal of Sterling does nothing but fuel the racism inherent in the British right-wing press. For example, following the Euro Cup Competition in 2016, Sterling is shamed by the Daily Mail and The Sun for buying a house for his mother after he is seen to be “smiling” in footage of a house tour following his apparent disgraceful performance at the competition.

This negative portrayal of an incident of a working man buying his mother a property as a result of his fruitful career, an achievement that should be celebrated, demonstrates the media’s tendency to use a person of an ethnic minority as a scapegoat for a deteriorating society. Contrastingly, Phil Foden, a player of the same Manchester City team, is praised by The Daily Mail in a different article as a ‘starlet’ after also buying a home for his mother. The obvious difference between the players is skin colour, with Foden being Manchester-born and Sterling being of Jamaican descent. By examining these shocking portrayals of players in the media, we can begin to comprehend where such hostile, racist, attitudes are fuelled and manifested.

Over 30 years ago, John Barnes (a Liverpool F.C. player in 1988) had chosen to represent England at an international level, rather than his birthplace of Jamaica, which led to a number of disgruntled racist fans.

That year, Barnes was infamously subject to racist abuse in which a banana skin was thrown at him during a Liverpool derby match against Everton, which resulted in one of the most recognised photographs in football, where Barnes is seen kicking the skin off of the pitch.

To parallel this, a very similar photo circulated following a match between Arsenal F.C. and Tottenham Hotspur in 2017. In similar circumstances, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also had a banana skin thrown at him after scoring a goal in a London derby match against Tottenham.
There is 29 years between the two incidences, and it is clear not much has changed in regard to overt racism in football.

Despite successful efforts in education and larger participation in sports on behalf of ethnic minorities by slowly eradicating discrimination with regard to coaching and playing, it is clear that fans are still not deterred from voicing their racist attitudes.

The 57-year-old man who was found to be guilty of racism toward Pierre-Emerick faced a four-year football ban and a £500 fine. However, these consequences are clearly not enough, as racism is still prevalent, and a combination of these grassroot campaigns with a change in media’s attitudes and also governmental intervention will be the most successful in dealing the problem.  

The Case of Colin Kaepernick  
As anti-racist campaigns and organisations, there is only so much that can be achieved. Sometimes individual protest can be a catalyst for change.

Much like Rosa Parks refusing to stand up and concede her seat in 1955 to a white man on a bus in Alabama, (a state hemmed into racial oppression under the Jim Crow segregation laws), Colin Kaepernick, descendent of an African American, displayed similar defiance to Americanism with his protest in 2016. The protest consisted of Kaepernick choosing not to stand during the national anthem that played before the start of an American Football match he was playing in. Instead, he opted to kneel down and not participate. He chose to manifest this protest for those who, in his own words, “are oppressed” in the face of police brutality and racial inequality in the United States.

This individual protest was then followed by numerous incidents of similar circumstances, as more and more American Football players were following his example. This protest then extended beyond the world of American Football, receiving support from Megan Rapinoe, a white American soccer player who also refused to stand during the national anthem at a soccer game. This parallels support from white people for Civil Rights in the U.S., such as the support found in the creation of Montgomery Freedom Schools where white people were prominent in Civil Rights activism, joining in on the voicing of concerns of those who were at the hands of oppression.

These protests caused so much of a stir in the media and public opinion that it resulted in president Donald Trump publicly condemning the players’ actions at a political rally, calling for “that son of a bitch [Kaepernick]” to be fired. This demonstrates the impetus that individual protest can cause, leading to a snowball effect of support and disturbance to the elite’s rule, so much so that even governing authorities believe they should intervene. 

Bulgaria VS. England; Racism VS. Protest

Another example of individual protest is the refusal of the England international football players to continue playing against the Bulgarian football team on 14th October 2019.

During the game, it was stopped twice by the England players after being subject to racial slurs, such as Nazi salutes and monkey chants from the Bulgarian fan base, and they refused to continue on the field until it had stopped. Following investigations, UEFA helped in the shaming of Bulgarian fans and disapproval of racism by fining the Bulgarian football team 75,000 euros and assisting with over 12 arrests of those involved in the chants. However, Kick It Out were far from impressed at UEFA’s handling of the case, calling for tougher sanctions.

Consequently, this type of protest carried out by a group of individuals, combined with the condemning of racism on behalf of the media, eventually led to the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Bokyo Borissov, publicly calling for the president of the Bulgarian Football Union, Borislav Mihaylov, to resign. Thereby, the power of individual protest, combined with the condemnation on behalf of anti-racist campaigns with regard to sanctions, and in conjunction with government intervention, is clearly demonstrated in this regard when it comes to handling racism.

Organisations like ‘Kick It Out’ and ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ clearly allow for an initiation of change in racist attitudes which have been a reoccurring problem throughout time in society at all levels, not just sport. However, in order for their goals to be more effective, change at grassroots level must be complimented with governmental top-down approaches in combination with individual protest for institutions such as the media to begin to shift their attitudes regarding ethnic minorities, thus shifting the general sentiments of society. For now, time will be the judge as to whether unprecedented measures such as firing the head of the Bulgarian Football Union will be as effective as is hoped, or whether more must be done in society as a whole, on a political and individual level, for Black Activism to finally show racism the red card.