The ugly side of the beautiful game
Football is failing our underrepresented groups. More must be done to improve inclusion and reflect our diverse society
On the face of it, football is the picture of diversity. Multicultural, international, and a route to riches and social mobility for athletically gifted working-class kids.
But while football considers that it’s making great strides towards being inclusive, those of us on the outside looking in see sclerotic governing bodies presiding over a sport where racist incidents are not uncommon (just look at Burnley earlier this year), where the women’s game is woefully underpromoted, and management could scarcely be less diverse. No Premier League club has a Black owner and there are no Black board members of the FA.
The ill-judged comments of former FA chairman Greg Clarke before my committee last month are a feature of football’s issues, not an isolated incident.
The lack of diversity at the highest echelons of football has far-reaching impacts. While around a third of professional players are BAME, there are few Asian professional players. That’s not because, to paraphrase Mr Clarke, there’s a cultural preference for IT.
And even where diversity endeavours have made progress in recent years, Covid-19 and the pandemic look set to strip that all away.
Over the summer, huge efforts went into ensuring the men’s game could return to finish the season, but women’s football received minimal attention and was put off for months.
Just weeks ago, we heard that training academies for girls couldn’t return because they didn’t have access to the same testing and Covid-safe facilities as those of boys. That lack of access has the potential to disrupt the pipeline of women’s talent for years. What happened to the pride we felt when the Lionesses reached the World Cup semi-final last year? Successes like that don’t come out of nowhere.
Perhaps most strikingly, there are currently no openly gay or bisexual male professional footballers in the UK.
My committee has heard from football executives who say gay players would be supported and the sport is inclusive. But it’s 2020 and not one of the many hundreds of Premier League players has yet taken that step. Recent comments implying homosexuality is a choice can’t have helped perceptions of the sport.
Earlier this year, I told this magazine I’d like to outlaw homophobia in football grounds, the same way racism is. That’s still my ambition. Only when we start to make a serious effort to tackle homophobia do I think we’ll see progress.
Football bodies don’t seem to think they should be held accountable or reflect the people who enjoy the sport
At the heart of football’s diversity woes is its governance. The concerns of fans are routinely sidelined as they pay through the nose for a sport they love, on £15 pay-per-view and season tickets that cost thousands and take years to get.
Football bodies don’t seem to think they should be held accountable or reflect the people who enjoy the sport. In June, the Premier League took pride in championing the Black Lives Matter movement. In July, it refused to publish figures on the diversity of its workforce. What we do know is that just six of the 92 EFL and Premier League managers are Black.
Covid-19 has posed huge challenges. The Premier League and EFL are yet to come to a deal to support the struggling lower leagues, despite the repeated efforts of my committee. Many grassroots clubs will not survive the pandemic, and fans are yet to return. But survival shouldn’t come at a cost of forgetting those who are already underrepresented: women struggling to train; Asian players struggling to break through; Black executives up against governing bodies with little appetite for change; gay players who see a sport that isn’t for them.
Modern Britain is diverse and inclusive. It’s time football was too.
Julian Knight is the Conservative MP for Solihull and chair of the DCMS Select Committee.