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?
I 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.