Another controversial weekend for English football in its battle against racism and homophobia. Fans returned to stadiums, but created fuss before a ball was even kicked. And the rainbow laces campaign, which focuses on opening up football for everyone, once again got a lot of stick on social media. Should football remain neutral in these issues? Why do these topics remain a struggle for club and fans? Is there any way the game could do more?
Millwall taking a knee, fans booing
It should have been a festive weekend in British football. For the first time since March, a limited number of fans were allowed back in the stadiums of multiple clubs across the country. Millwall were one of these clubs, and just like in every game, the players took a knee before kick-off. Consequently, a part of the home fans took offense to that and started booing in protest to the action. What should have been a celebration between players and fans suddenly became a hostile environment, with opposing sides in the same club. Millwall defender Mahlon Romeo claimed it made him feel ‘the lowest he had felt during his time at the club’. The fans said that while they respected the players making a statement by kneeling, the booing was their statement.
The rainbow laces campaign
And then there’s the rainbow laces campaign. Despite it being a returning event, the Premier League (and clubs’) social media accounts get more criticism every year. Thousands and thousands of angry and irritated comments of people who don’t back the support of the LGBTQ+ community. Foreign names stand out, but they are not the only ones. After all these years, it seems like the campaign is dividing people more than it is uniting them.
‘Football shouldn’t be about politics’
‘Football shouldn’t be about politics’. It’s one of the most heard comments in both situations. The aim of the Premier League with these actions is achieving inclusion and diversity, but some people feel excluded, even threatened by the leftish undertone of them.
However well-intended the Premier League’s actions are, they will never unite all people in the stands. Because a stadium full of people also means different views and opinions. Some people don’t agree with Black Lives Matter, and never will.
The game of us all
But there is one opinion we can all agree on: every single one of us wants to feel at home when going to the stadium. We want to sense that we are part of the bigger whole that a football community is.
It is the game of us all: all around the world, people play football. When you look at the football pitch, it is probably one of the most diverse workplaces anywhere.
Football shouldn’t be neutral
That’s why football shouldn’t be neutral. The game does have its values. When you look at the game, you see them: values such as creativity and freedom of choice for the individual, accepting each other and working together despite everyone’s differences. If you want to call these values political, fair enough. But integration, inclusion, equality and freedom are integral the game you love watching week in, week out.
Now it’s time for real action
In that regard, football still has a long way to go in order live up to its own values. Off the pitch, the industry is just as non-diverse as let’s say, the corporate world. There are currently only six non-white head coaches in professional football in England. Same story in the stands. Non-white fans make up a marginal part of English football crowds. And who could blame them, when you hear the chants fans sometimes make about black players?
Even on the pitch, few players ever gather the courage necessary to come out as gay or bisexual. In a world with 65,000 professional football players, only three have ever come out as homosexual.
And that’s why, in a paradoxical way, these booing fans might be right. These symbolic actions aren’t what English football should be doing right now. It’s time for real actions.
It’s time for clubs and players to come up with a real plan to battle these issues. By actually speaking up instead of just following what everybody else is doing. By running special events to celebrate diversity on matchday. By inviting underrepresented groups for games and making them feel welcome.
Come on, football. Do something. Be creative. Be original. Be real. One step at a time, we can try to open up the game for everyone, and allow them to be their true selves.