The FA is to blame for discrimination in football

Dear David Bernstein,

You must have a splendid view from up there, perched atop football’s pyramid as Chairman of the Football Association — at least until Greg Dyke replaces you in July. I wonder how the state of the game looks to you? The top clubs are awash with cash, the players are paid weekly fortunes, and the grounds are full — in the Premier League, anyway. Lower down the divisions, teams aren’t so lucky. The national team recently beat San Marino 8-0, which would be cause for celebration if only a team existed that couldn’t beat San Marino 8-0, and struggling to a 1-1 draw against lowly Montenegro hardly fills any England supporter with confidence for the Brazil World Cup next year.

As you edge towards the door marked Exit, you must be thinking about legacy. Have I left the game in better shape than I found it? What changes did I make to have a positive effect on players, on coaches, on clubs, at every tier of football?

Derived from photo at https://www.facebook.com/therobbierogersI hope you read today’s interview in the Guardian with Robbie Rogers. Any thoughts you might have had about how well you’ve tackled discrimination should be banished utterly, replaced by shame.

Watch the video. Look into his eyes as he talks about “the homophobic culture” within the game. How he, plainly, wants to keep playing. In the printed interview, he says: “Most days I wake up and I go to my computer and look at my emails and then go onto the football sites. Football will always be part of me.”

You shouldn’t need me to tell you this: you need players like Robbie Rogers in football. Positive role models. Articulate, intelligent, passionate, thoughtful. Not thugs and bullies, in and out of car showrooms, in and out of trouble, in and out of court.

Why have you driven Rogers away from the game? Why is he allowed to retire, and the others given every incentive to keep playing? Why has nothing been done about the homophobic culture pervading the sport?

Oh, yes, you’ve written an action plan. You’ve made a few statements and partnered with other organisations, and “pledged full support” for the Football v Homophobia campaign. During February and March you “focused” on the issue, setting a goal of signing up 150 clubs to the campaign. So far, you’ve got 48.

So much for action. So much for leadership.

I’m sure you’re not a homophobe yourself. It’s a financial calculation, perhaps. Who’s driving the culture? The supporters. Who pays the bills? The supporters. You want them to keep paying ever-increasing ticket prices. You don’t want to alienate them.

I think it’s telling that the FA has taken four months and counting to “investigate” anti-semitism against Spurs fans by West Ham supporters. Are you, perhaps, waiting for everyone to forget about it?

It’s funny, isn’t it, how other sports don’t have this problem. Gareth Thomas came out and carried on playing rugby. Steven Davies came out and carried on playing cricket. Orlando Cruz came out and carried on boxing.

And yet still, nobody is out in football in this country. It cannot possibly be true that there are no gay footballers currently playing in the UK. But they don’t even feel happy talking in confidence to Robbie Rogers. They are scared. The culture of football — the sport you run — prevents them from being themselves.

Here’s what Robbie Rogers says in the interview:

“In football it’s obviously impossible to come out – because no-one has done it. No one. It’s crazy and sad.”

“I don’t think I would have been able to go training the next day. That would be so scary.”

“I might be strong enough but I don’t know if that’s really what I want. I’d just want to be a footballer.”

He just wants to play football. And he doesn’t feel he can. What a legacy.

I have some suggestions for you. Real actions you can take, with your colleagues in the Football League.

First, tie the behaviour of fans directly to a club’s position in the league. If an independent observer at a match identifies any discriminatory chanting or other actions, the club is punished with a severe points deduction. Further such behaviour results in further, increased deductions. (In cup matches, order replays or disqualifications.)

Second, any player, coach or official found to have made racist, homophobic or otherwise discriminatory statements on or off the pitch should be barred from the game in all formats, permanently. That is what “no tolerance” actually means. If that’s too strong, introduce a three-strikes rule and ever-increasing bans: eight matches, one season, life.

Third, if you’re looking for someone to present to the teams at the FA Cup Final in May, I hear Robbie Rogers is free.

Warm regards,

Anthony.

Thoughts on Robbie Rogers

robbie-rogers-headerI had a feeling it was coming. Like the Richard-III-under-the-car-park lady whose every nerve fizzed when she peered at a dried-up old tibia in a trench, I sensed an outing was afoot. It’s why I published Disunited as rapidly as I could.

Robbie Rogers, of Leeds United and the US international team, has come out. He’s not — and I’m sure he’d be the first to agree — the most famous footballing name in this country. At least, he wasn’t. But it was never likely to be someone at the very top of the game who would be first to jump out of the closet.

All the reaction I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere to Rogers’ announcement has been positive: from his teammates, from the authorities, from respected elders such as the blessed Gary Lineker (crisps be upon him), and of course from the gay community. To my surprise even people sending him messages on Twitter — numbering in the several thousands it seems — appear universally to be praising him. If there are negative reactions, they’re drowned out by the positive. It’s a heartwarming response.

But the good wishes are sprinkled with disappointment. Please don’t retire. Put your boots back on. Shame you had to quit.

The sad truth is that Rogers has decided to stop playing, with immediate effect. He’s not, after all, going to be the first out gay player in the British game since Justin Fashanu: he’s going to be one of the many sportsmen who waited until retirement before coming out.

In fact it’s worse: he retired, seemingly, expressly so he could come out.

Read his statement.

“Fear that judgment and rejection would hold me back from my dreams and aspirations.”

“Fear that my secret would get in the way of my dreams.”

“Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work.”

Painfully honest, and moving, and damning.

No outpouring of support and best wishes and congratulations from teammates and authorities and elders and strangers can whitewash the blunt truth: even today, even after anti-discrimination laws, even after civil partnerships, even after the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to support equal marriage, in football it seems you can be gay — or you can play.

The sport should be ashamed of this reality.

It is not enough the Professional Footballers’ Association bland-tweeting vacuousness like this:

It “fully supports” a “courageous decision”. As Danny Prince’s agent Cherie would say in Disunited: “Of course it bleedin’ does. What they gonna say, titter titter don’t drop the soap?

The FA has issued a similarly weedy press release. Eight short paragraphs — three of which aren’t about Rogers at all — patting itself on the back for doing the barest minimum.

Messages like these from the FA and PFA are sonar pings: simple acknowledgements of simple truths. Glossy FA brochures and platitudes about “support” cannot make up for the years of fudging, of shelved campaigns, of pocket-money fines, of lack of any substantial action.

In my view the leadership of the PFA and the FA should be prostrating themselves before the media begging forgiveness. They should be admitting that their organisations have failed utterly to support gay players, by not speaking out and acting more strongly against homophobia within the game. Homophobia such as anti-gay chanting from travelling supporters towards the home crowd at Brighton and Hove Albion, which has become worse in recent years. Even last Tuesday the Blackburn Rovers player Colin Kazim-Richards allegedly made homophobic gestures towards fans on “at least five occasions” during their match at Brighton. Kazim-Richards is an official campaigner for Kick It Out, the FA’s anti-racism initiative.

The authorities take racist behaviour seriously, and yet don’t seem to treat homophobia in football the same way. This fails gay supporters — of which there are many — and it fails gay players.

It is the responsibility of the FA and the PFA to make the game safe for gay players to come out, just as it is their responsibility to rid the game of racism to allow players of all backgrounds to succeed.

Just as the game — not the player — would be shamed if a non-white player retired rather than play in an atmosphere of hate, the game is shamed when a gay man like Robbie Rogers does the same.

Read these sentences again:

The FA: “The Football Association has offered its full support to former Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers after he came out as gay.”

The PFA: “The PFA fully supports Robbie Rogers in taking the courageous decision to announce that he is gay.”

Robbie Rogers: “Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work.”