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It has been called the beautiful game; in the past even during war the opposing sides played a game; it has made some of its players stars and household names, football or soccer has a global appeal. From the townships in South Africa, to the Brazilian Favelas, the makeshift pitches the world over to the highly pristine pitches in academies, kids the world over learn to kick a ball, and play the game that requires speed, agility, and dexterity in the feet. Kids who just play for fun in an after-school club or to bond with friends. The appeal of this game has been intertemporal.
Generations of kids, begged their parents to stay longer out to play with their friends, asked for another ball, shoes or shorts and each family responded according to their means. After all, football is/was a working-class game. The relative low cost makes it accessible; it allows plenty of kids to play together and build relationships. Football was an equaliser that did not care who you are or where you come from.
I remember as a kid, year after year playing in the summer with the same kids in teams between Greek and Yugoslavians. We were keeping score and the losing side was buying the other side ice-creams. Not quite the golden ornate cup but a wager worth playing 10 games across the summer. We called each other’s teams with the name of the country we came from. My lasting memory was the last time we played together before the civil war in Yugoslavia erupted. The Yugoslavians won and they were chanting “Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia”. Those kids did not come the following summer. In the next summer, the same kids would be carrying the flag and arms of one of the opposing sides armed to kill each other. When football is not the game, disputes are resolved in brutality.
In the past decades, football’s appeal made it the game to watch. The transition to professional football made the game lucrative, some clubs acquired big budgets and of course attracted a finer audience. The pundits, as a former footballer put it, started eating “prawn sandwiches” an indication of their more expensive tastes. Still people stick with the sport because of their own memories and experiences. My first ever game was with my grandfather. We went to the stadium of the club that was to become the team I support for life. The atmosphere, the emotional roller coaster and most importantly a shared experience with someone very dear, that even when they are gone, you carry the sounds, the emotions with you forever.
Some footballers started earning enormous fees for playing the game; the club colours became trademarked and charged over the odds for a simple scarf or a top. The rights to the games sold to private companies requiring people to pay subscriptions to watch a simple game. People objected but continued still to support, although some people were priced out of the game altogether. The game endures because it still resonates with people’s experiences.
In particular, the national games have kept some of their original appeal of playing for your country, playing for your colours! Football is an unpredictable sport and in international events you can have an outsider taking the cup against the odds! Like Greece winning the UEFA Euro in 2004! The games in international tournaments leads to knock out games, with the drama of extra time and of course the penalty shootout. Nail biting moments shared with family and friends. These magical moments of personal and collective elevation, as if you were there with the players, part of their effort, part of their victory.
When the host country was announced some years ago that will be hosting this year’s world cup there were already calls for investigation into the voting process raising concerns. Since then, there have been concerns about the safety of those who work on the infrastructure. Thousands of migrant workers, many of whom are/were undocumented have worked in building the stadiums that the games will be played in. There are accusations of numerous deaths of migrant workers (an estimate from The Guardian comes to a staggering 6,500 deaths). This has raised a significant question about priorities in our world. It is unthinkable to put a game above human life. This was later followed by “the guidelines” to teams and visitors that alternative sexualities will not be tolerated. Calls about respecting the host’s culture adding to the numbers of people calling for a boycott. So why I won’t be watching this time around?
We have been talking for years about inclusivity and tolerance. Women’s rights, LGBTQ+, immigrant rights, worker rights and all of them being trampled for the sake of a competition. Those who have been asked about the issues from the football federation, former footballers and even governments have played down all these concerns. In some cases, they opted for a tokenistic move like rainbow-coloured planes or include the rainbow on national team logo. Others will be issuing rainbow bracelets and some saying that they will raise issues if/when given the opportunity. This sounds too little considering what has happened so far especially all the fatalities caused building all the constructions. If we are not to uphold civil rights and if we are not ready to act on them, why talk about them?
I remember the game for being inclusive and serving to get people together; this competition is setting an incredibly horrible precedent that human life is cheap and expendable; that people’s rights are negotiable and that you can stop being who you are momentarily, because the game matters more than any of the above. It does not! Without rights, without respect, without life there is no game, there is nothing, because there is no humanity. These games do not bother me, they offend me as a human being. If people died to build this stadium then this space is not fit for games; it’s a monument to vanity and greed; hardly sportsmanlike qualities.
This post in-part takes its name from a book by the late Whiteness Studies academic Ruth Frankenberg (1993) and is the final of three that will discuss Whiteness, women, and racism.
Chapter III: Your Problem but not Your Problem
Despite women’s investment in football, at least socially, in terms of Women’s Football (much better than the men’s game in my opinion), it was interesting to observe the reactions of White men that positioned themselves as progressives when I challenged the national response to racism in the game. When we realise that ‘football hooligans’ all have jobs across sector, I would bring people to consider this is not just a working-class issue, as football is a game that transcends socioeconomic lines. This post isn’t necessarily about the violence White women have commited against me but is certainly their problem, and they could have a deciding voice of how White men act at football matches. When we consider racial hiearchies, I am reminded of the gendered components of colonialism where White men are at the top of that hierachy followed by the White woman. In spite of White women’s complicity in those histories of racism (Ware, 1992), logic dictates that White women’s privilege will have some sway when White men act in hostility to people of colour. That said, still today I find White women all too happy to take on misogyny / patriarchy but not racism / White supremacy. In this blog, I will start with a Twitter encounter where I dared to say there isn’t a “racism-in-football-problem” but a more societal issue of White supremacy. Until we start thinking about White supremacy as a political system, just as women have done patriarchy (DeBeavoir, 1949; Friedan, 1963; Davis, 1981; hooks, 1991; Adichie, 2014) and others have done class (Marx and Engles, 1848; Chomsky, 1999; Tom Nicholas, 2020), we will never solve this racism issue.
When I challenged the concept of “racism in football” in July 2021, a local BBC journalist claimed I could make it both about ‘racism in football’ and in society. The problem with this is, dominant media discourses have already stitched it all up by relegating racism to specific spaces somewhat divorced from a global system of violence. At this time as well, I saw the term ‘football hooliganism’ being used as double talk for ‘working-class thuggery’. However, to understand how football got to where it is today, we need to know how football was not originally made by the working-class.
Much alike my favourite sport cricket (Tre Ventour Ed, 2021), football started as a sport for characteristically ‘English gentlemen’. It was made for the rich by the rich to really celebrate themselves. Their game by their rules. When the working-class started to advocate for players playing for money, in its day (so the late nineteenth century), it was thought controversial. Yet, the rich controlled the boards and they could afford to play for free, taking days off for matches. The proleterians could not. Here, then you see that it came down to money, where a game made by the wealthy for them and their friends was then changed forever by working people, no less than mill and factoryworkers.
Actions that society most associates with the working-class majority today – including public fights, vandalism, brawls, and riotting in Britain are not new phenomena but has a long history going back to even before 1900 uncoincidentally coinciding with the construction of London Metropolitan Police Service in 1829 (Storch, 1975). Following the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, for example, so-called ‘race riots’ took place in no fewer than nine port communities between January and August 1919 (Jenkinson, 1996: 92). However, media footage and pictures of British riots before the Second World War have rarely been seen by the public but “…individual memories of civil disorder [in those days were] surprisingly widespread” and when riotting did happen, “governments often denied they had, and censored the newsreel pictures” (Forbidden Britain). Historically speaking, these uprisings grew out of a response to state-sanctioned violence frequently mass unemployment and poverty. Under the threat of poverty, homelessness, or even death, groups will attack shops and other structures to acquire food where “the turbulence of the colliers is, of course, to be accounted for by something more elementary than politics: it was the instinctive reaction of virility to hunger” (Ashton and Sykes, 1967: 131). Yet, the male violence that occured at the England v Italy Euro finale football match in London July 2021 has a precedent going back to the days of Walter Tull where his biographer historian Phil Vasili writes:
“In 1919, working-class Britain was in a rebellious state. Whether the war created the mood of revolt among workers – sometimes taking a horribly distorted and misguided form as we saw with the race riots – or merely speeded up the process that had been years in fermentation, is not for debate here. The fact is it happened. Families, individuals, veterans were changed by the war, including Tull, his eagerness to enlist souring to a hatred for carnage.”Vasili, 2010: 229
On the morning of the final, I saw evidence of local Northamptonians heading to the pubs to get their fill as early as 8AM before the game that evening at 8PM (@cllrjameshill). In London, however, White (let’s be honest of course dominantly heterosexual cisgendered) patriarchal violence, was in full swing on Leicester Square, described as a “fanzone for thousands of England fans” before even two o’clock. Furthermore, according to Hutchinson (1975), “riots, unruly behaviour, violence, assault and vandalism, appear to have been a well-established, but not necessarily dominant pattern of crowd behaviour at football matches, at least from the 1870s” (p11). Whilst football today has united people across racial and class lines, many Black men of my dad’s generation (born 1971) would not find themselves anywhere near a match when they were my age or even as teenagers purely for the fact that these crowds were frequently racist and the risk of violence was significant. Today, while racism in football is largely in response to the actions of White people against Black players, there is a further history of White racism against Black fans too.
As I do not doubt that there is racism in women’s football (there is racism at every level of society), I wonder why women’s sports (especially football) is not associated with violence. Heck, other men’s sports do not have these connotations attached. We do not see it in cricket, nor do we see it in rugby to these extremes or tennis. Looking at the conversations in what happened following the game, it seemed to me that people were trying so hard to divorce this male violence from the rest of society, as if it is only specific to football. I would argue this is Britain’s soul, an unfiltered and grandiose example of the gendered racial privilege that comes with being a White man in the UK. It is very easy to stigmatise the working-class in this instance and call them “thugs”, but when we know football unites across class divides, it would do us well to consider how lots of the perpetrators were also probably middle-class as well, with jobs that permeate every level of British society: from accounting to education to sports, unions and more. That while it is incredibly easy to scapegoat them as there are histories of working-class responding with riots against state violence (no less than sports riots), we must think about how for some reason, football in particular, turns lots of men feral.
I was talking to one family member who claimed this is where men get to claim their base instincts, that violence seems to come naturally. I would need to think more on this, but it must be said that many social settings condition violence out of us, from school to the workplace. Even so, that in schools violence is punished, many students (especially boys) being placed pupil referral units. Whilst society brutalises in many ways, the pugilistic scenes we are witness to at football matches is one that is considered unsavoury by most. Men gathering together at the football … does this flick a switch? In the late nineteenth century, polymath Gustave LeBon writes about what he called “the collective mind” (1896: 2) whilst another scholar later states “the natural crowd is the open crowd; there are no limits … it does not recognise houses, doors, or locks and those that shut themselves in are suspect” (Canetti, 1962: 16). Football matches may be an apt site to discuss what the psychology profession now calls ‘crowd theory’ which was further developed on by psychologist Neil Smelser analysing the American ‘race riots’ in the first half of the last century (1962: 253, 260-61).
In my last post, I talked about ‘Karen’ in relation to racist middle-aged White women that harrass Black people minding their business. Yet, one does not see White women congregating like this together in mass as instigators of violence, where if at all in my experience violence from White women has been more individualistic or covert. Though, if women friends/colleagues disagree and know more, I’m happy to be put right from their personal experience (and do more reading). Rioting, however, is frequently often hypermasculine (Gary Younge in: DDN, 2020) and so is the violence around football. The role of White women in racism can be more insidious but my encounter on Twitter with this White man comes after my many encounters with White men that think they know more than Black people about racism.
Both White men and women are complicit in White supremacy as aggressors and bystanders. To keep this on topic, every time a White woman watches a White man’s racism but stays silent, they are as bad as they are really showing how White supremacy is the symptom and racism is the problem.
Now, you have three entries. Have a think on them.
Adichie, C.N. (2014) We Should All Be Feminists. London: 4th Estate.
Ashton, T. S., and Sykes, J. (1967). The Coal Industry of the Eighteenth Century. 2nd ed. New York: A. M. Kelley.
Canetti, E. (1962) Crowds and Power. London: Gollancz.
Chomsky, N (1999) Profit over People. New York: Seven Story Press.
Davis, A. (1981) Women, Race, and Class. London: Penguin.
DeBeauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex. London: Vintage.
[DDN] Double Down News (2020) Black Lives Matter & The Question of Violence | Gary Younge. YouTube [online].
Forbidden Britain (1994) Riots Episode 3 [via YouTube]. London: BBC 2.
Frankenberg, R. (1993) White Women, Race Matters. MI: University Press.
Friedan, B (1963) The Feminine Mystique. London: Penguin.
hooks, b (1991) All About Love: New Vision. London: HarperCollins.
Hutchinson, J. (1975) Some aspects of football crowds before 1914. In. The Working Class. University of Sussex Conference Report.
Jenkinson, J (1996) The 1919 Riots. In: Panayi, P (ed) Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Leicester: University Press, pp. 92-111.
Le Bon, G (1896) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T. Fisher Unwin.
Marx, K and Engels, F. (1848/1967) The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin.
Smelser, N. (1962/2011) Theories of Collective Behaviour. New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro.
Storch, R.D. (1975) The Plague of the Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57. International Review of Social History, 20 (1), pp.61-90
Tom Nicholas (2020) Whiteness: WTF? White Privilege and the Invisible Race. YouTube.
Tre Ventour Ed. (2021) 22 Yards of Whiteness: ‘You Don’t Have to be Posh to be Privileged’. YouTube.
Vasili, P. (2010) Walter Tull, (1888-1918), Officer, Footballer: All the Guns in France Couldn’t Wake Me. London: Raw.
Ware, V. (1992/2015) Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History. London: Verso.
My favourite TV show - Peep Show. I recently binge watched Noughts + Crosses which I thought was brilliant My favourite place to go -I am one of eight siblings so going to see any of my brothers and sisters (and their families) is always great My favourite city -I prefer going to rural places rather than cities. I loved going to the Amazon Rainforest, Kruger National Park and being stalked by whales in Puerto Madryn. My favourite cities are Rio De Janiero, Cuzco, New York, San Francisco, Athens, Lisbon and London to name a few. I also live in Birmingham and love it here; I think it’s underrated as a city. I really enjoy going to music or food and drink events and being surrounded by friendly Brummies My favourite thing to do in my free time - walk my dog, meet up with friends...have a nap. I am also obsessed with reading at the moment My favourite athlete/sports personality - I’m not a sports person. Although, as procrastinating options were dwindling whilst I was doing my Master’s degree, I suddenly became fan of football. Apparently, the team I like the most (Liverpool) is the arch enemy team of my boyfriend's beloved Man United. I also like Wolves and Tottenham but liking three teams makes me a deviant in the footballing world My favourite actor - Steve Carell. Especially him as Brick in Anchorman and as Michael Scott in The Office My favourite author - still undecided with this one. Obviously, since childhood I have been eternally grateful for J.K Rowling for creating the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. My favourite drink - Tea My favourite food -Potatoes. Saag Paneer Balti with chips and a cheese naan bread My favourite place to eat - anywhere as long as its with good company I like people who - are empathetic, kind and encouraging of others I don’t like it when people - think and act as though they are better to others My favourite book - currently it's Milkman by Anna Burns My favourite book character - Yossarian from Catch 22. He’s hilarious- I love his nerve and his anti-war sentiments. My favourite film -I should be put off by the racist and misogynistic undertones within the Lord of the Rings films (and books) but I can’t help but enjoy the long adventure that Frodo and his friends embark upon. For a quick answer… Bohemian Rhapsody! My favourite poem - I need to read more poems as I don't know of many. I do like poems by Margaret Atwood and John Cooper Clarke. My favourite artist/band - I am sad enough to have a ‘Criminology Playlist’. It includes songs by Johnny Cash, Rage Against the Machine, Kano, Kate Bush, The Specials and Stormzy amongst others. My favourite song - I love music that helps me to relax after a busy day at work. I love What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong, Pink Floyd’s live at Pompeii set, Radiohead and Hans Zimmer’s version of Bloom, Benjamin Clementine’s Nemesis and many more… My favourite art -I was mesmerised by Picasso’s Les Meninas collection in the Picasso Museum. Banksy’s work is brilliant too My favourite person from history - Those who contributed towards getting more rights/help for others. Only if they did this in a non-violent way, of course
Imagine that every professional or semi-professional footballer in the country had the same ability and the same fitness levels. How would it be possible to distinguish between them, how would league tables be established, who would play for the top teams? Nonsense of course because we know that not every football player can have the same ability or fitness levels for that matter. And there is a myriad of reasons why this may be the case. However, there is probably little doubt that those that have been professionally coached, even at the lowest level in the professional game can run rings round most part time amateur players.
Not everyone can be at the top, in the Premier League. If we took a sample of players across the leagues and were to somehow measure ability then the likelihood would be that we would find a normal distribution, a bell curve, with most players having average ability and a few with amazing ability and a few with some but perhaps inconsistent ability. It is probably likely that we would find those with the most ability in the Premier League and those with the least in lower or non-league clubs and these are probably semi-professional or amateurs. Perhaps it would be prudent to reiterate that those with the least ability are still way ahead of those that do not play football or just dabble in it occasionally. This then is not to say that those at the lower end of the skills distribution curve are rubbish at playing football, just that they, for whatever reason, are not as skilled as those on the opposite side of the curve. And those that have average skill i.e., the greatest number of footballers, are very good but not quite as good as the most skilled. Make sense so far, I hope so?
If we apply the logic to the skill of footballers can we not apply the logic elsewhere, in particular to university students. Surely, in terms of academic ability, we would find that there were those at the one end of the curve achieving A and B grades or 1st degrees and then the majority in the middle perhaps achieving C and D grades of course tailing off to those that are achieving perhaps low D and F grades. We would probably hope to find a normal distribution curve of sorts. We could probably say that those with lower grades have far greater academic ability than anyone that hasn’t attended university. We could certainly say that the majority i.e. those getting C and higher D grades are good or very good academically when compared to someone that hasn’t attended university but not quite as good as those achieving A and B grades. The assessment grading criteria seems to confirm this, a D grade is labelled as ‘satisfactory’, a C grade ‘commended’ a B grade ‘of merit’ and an A grade ‘distinguished’. Just to reiterate, achieving a D grade suggests a student has displayed ‘satisfactory’ academic ability and met the requisite ‘learning outcomes’.
Why is it then that degrees at institutional level are measured in terms of ‘good degrees’? These are a ‘1st and 2.1. At programme level we talk of ‘good grades’, ‘A’ grades and ‘B’ grades. The antithesis of ‘good’ is ‘bad’. This logic then, this managerialist measurement, suggests that anything that is not a 1st or a 2.1 or an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade is in fact a ‘bad’ grade. Extending the logic further and drawing on more managerial madness, targets are set that suggest 80% of students should achieve a ‘good grade’. A skewing of a distribution curve that would defeat even the best statistician and would have Einstein baffled.
Let me revisit the football analogy, using the above language and measurements, a comparison would suggest that any player outside of the Premier League is in fact a ‘bad’ player. Not only that but a target should be set where 80% of players should be in the Premier League. The other leagues then appear to be irrelevant despite the fact that they make up probably 90% of the national game and prop up the Premier League in one form or another.
With such a use of language and a desire to simplify the academic world so that it can be reduced to some form of managerial measurement, it is little wonder that perfectly capable students consider their work to be a failure when they earn anything less than an A or B grade or do not achieve a 1st or 2.1 degree.
It is not the students that are failing but higher education and academic institutions in their inability to devise more sophisticated and meaningful measurements. In the meantime, students become more and more stressed and disheartened because their significant academic achievements fail to be recognised as achievements but are instead seen at an institutional level as failures.
A few weeks ago, Danny Rose the Tottenham and England footballer was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He indicated he couldn’t wait to quit football because of racism in the game. He’s not the only black player that has spoken out, Raheem Stirling of Manchester City and England had previously raised the issue of racism and additionally pointed to the way the media portrayed black players.
I have no idea what its like to be subjected to racist abuse, how could I, I’m a white, middle class male? I have however, lived in and was for the best part of my life brought up in, a country dominated by racism. I lived in South Africa during the apartheid regime and to some extent I suppose I suffered some racism there, being English, a rooinek (redneck) but it was in the main limited to name calling from the other kids in school and after all, I was still white. There was some form of logic in apartheid; separate development was intended to maintain the dominance of the white population. Black people were viewed as inferior and a threat, kaffirs (non-believers) even though the majority were probably more devout than their white counterparts. I understand the logic of the discourse around ‘foreigners coming into this country and taking our jobs or abusing our services’, if you are told enough times by the media that this is the case then eventually you believe. I always say to colleagues they should read the Daily Mail newspaper and the like, to be informed about what news fables many of the population are fed.
I understand that logic even though I cannot ever condone it, but I just don’t get the logic around football and racism. Take the above two players, they are the epitome of what every footballing boy or girl would dream of. They are two of the best players in England, they have to be to survive in the English Premiership. In fact, the Premiership is one of the best football leagues in the world and has a significant proportion of black players in it, many from other parts of the world. It is what makes the league so good, it is what adds to the beautiful game.
So apart from being brilliant footballers, these two players are English, as English as I am, maybe more so if they spent all of their lives in this country and represent the country at the highest level. They don’t ‘sponge’ off the state, in fact through taxes they pay more than I and probably most of us will in my lifetime. They no doubt donate lots of money to and do work for charities, there aren’t many Premiership footballers that don’t. The only thing I can say to their detriment, being an avid Hammers fan, is that they play for the wrong teams in the Premiership. I’m not able to say much more about them because I do not know them. And therein lies my problem with the logic behind the racist abuse they and many other black players receive, where is that evidence to suggest that they are not entitled to support, praise and everything else that successful people should get. The only thing that sets them aside from their white fellow players is that they have black skins.
To make sense of this I have to conclude that the only logical answer behind the racism must be jealousy and fear. Jealousy regarding what they have and fear that somehow there success might be detrimental to the racists. They are better than the racists in so many ways, and the racists know this. Just as the white regime in South Africa felt threatened by the black population so too must the racists* in this country feel threatened by the success of these black players. Now admit that and I might be able to see the logic.
*I can’t call them football supporters because their behaviour is evidence that they are not.