Racism has always existed in the game – because football didn’t invent racism – but it has never been louder than it is now.
Social media brings fans closer to players. Unfortunately, this has also meant it has never been so easy for the racist ones to abuse them. And as the world saw in Bulgaria, open displays of racism in the stands remain a shamefully common occurrence.
Former England u21s, Watford and Burnley striker Marvin Sordell has emerged as one of the most vocal former professionals on this – and other – sensitive subjects, and so Squawka sat down with him to discuss racism’s causes, potential solutions, and ways in which it impacts mental health.
Sordell retired in summer 2019 due to ongoing mental health issues and is now commercial director of his own production company 180 Productions. We asked if he was enjoying his new life, and his response was emphatic.
“I absolutely love it,” he said. And with regards to leaving the lifestyle of a footballer, he was equally assured: “I genuinely couldn’t think of anything worse than to go back and continue being a professional football player.”
Part of this is related to stress – or managing it, anyway. Sordell is an advocate of people, especially sportsmen, talking about their mental health. The very masculine nature of football culture has created this idea where players must always be seen as tough and able to handle abuse. Thus, speaking about the fragility that is mental weakness is not welcomed. Or, it hasn’t been.
Sordell is looking to change those perceptions, starting with the way football and footballers are viewed: “There is a lot of pressure. [Players] go out there and they love what they do; and to them, they want to enjoy it as well – but there’s a lot of pressure coming from people who look at the game as more than what it is, which is just a game.”
Bill Shankly famously said football is more important than life and death, and this informs the way a lot of fans view the game. It is treated with almost the same ferocious devotion as a religion. And because the players are the figures creating the stories of this religion, who weave the tapestries, they are treated more like mythic heroes than people.
“For quite some time players have been put on some pedestal for some reason, [and treated like] they’re untouchable, that they’re objects they’re not human beings,” Sordell explained.
This relentless dehumanisation may not even register with fans, but players definitely feel it.
“Most players go into the game and play football because it’s their escape, it’s what they love, it’s what they’re passionate about. And to have that passion kind of hammered away, chipped away, over years is quite sad – but it is the nature of the game.”
The nature of the game.
And that cruel, callous dehumanisation is partly what allows Ultras in Serie A to proclaim with a straight face that monkey chants aimed at black players have nothing to do with their race, as recently happened to Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian was told: “We understand that it could have seemed racist to you but it is not like that. In Italy, we use some ‘ways’ only to ‘help our teams’ and to try to make our opponents nervous.” As if racially abusing someone just to upset them (rather than because you feel them inferior) isn’t also extremely racist.
Racism as mental health
Paul Ansorge, football writer and psychotherapist, said: “Racism is a massive mental health issue, both in terms of the overt obvious abuse – but what’s really damaging is the subtle, detrimental effect to people’s self-esteem of being perceived in a certain negative way.”
Being a black player has never been easy, of course, but today you are subject to prejudice from all angles. From the stands, from the boardroom and from social media. Racism is everywhere and unrelenting.
“I would say it’s beyond football, it starts before football,” said Sordell. “Growing up in this world really, this world tends to be racist at times. And not just in your face, it’s that institutional racism that is ingrained in society.”
This is the major stumbling block for discourse on racism in football, that it only reflects the racism in society, a defeatist stance that actually serves to minimise the responsibility the game has to act upon racism at large. What we are left with are misguided responses focusing only on dealing with individual incidents, as though they are somehow separate from each other and simply the result of bad people, as opposed to a systemic problem.
“Of course many will say ‘it’s not a football problem, it’s a societal problem’ – which is true, but, football has a responsibility because football is part of society,” says Sordell. “You can’t just say ‘well, it’s above us’ y’know, because then nobody’s gonna do anything, nobody’s gonna get anything done; because it’s always above somebody. If you as a part of something bigger collectively can play your part in changing something, then you should.”
Sordell believes “football should do what it can to change society and be a part of the change in society. It’s not going to change society completely, but it can do its part.”
And it’s not as if we don’t have historic examples of sport playing its part to point to. As poet and writer Musa Okwonga previously highlighted, past sportsmen have educated society. Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell both faced tremendous racial abuse in the 1960s yet continued to speak out and, as a result, educated countless people across the world to the absurdity of racism.
That night away to Serbia
But bigotry and hatred persist – and some fans, such as those in Bulgaria on Monday evening, still cling to the same behaviours Ali and Russell were subjected to, the same behaviours Sordell experienced six years ago away against the Serbia u21s, as well.
Sordell was on the field back in 2012 when England’s U-21 team was playing in the Balkans. There, several black players suffered horrendous and incessant racial abuse: “When we went out to look at the pitch and hour and a half before the game, there were quite a lot of fans in the stadium and it was happening from then. Monkey chants, from there throughout the game.”
Danny Rose retaliated by kicking a ball into the crowd. He was sent off as a result and suspended for the first game of the 2013 u21s Euros. Uefa’s initial punishment for the Serbian FA? A one-match spectator ban and £65,000 fine. As pointed out on multiple occasions at the time, this is £15,000 less than the fine received by Nicklas Bendtner for displaying sponsored underpants while celebrating a goal at Euro 2012.
Uefa have since implemented a three-step protocol for dealing with racism within stadia, but penalties for such offences are not getting any more serious. So little wonder the focus has shifted onto players taking matters into their own hands. In Bulgaria, the match was paused twice as England players respected the protocol, but the racial abuse did not stop, and yet the game carried on until the final whistle.
Ahead of the 6-0 win Tammy Abraham suggested the squad had discussed staging a walk-off. “Harry Kane even said that if we’re not happy, if a player is not happy, we all come off the pitch together,” he explained.
What needs to be done?
Sordell supports the players walking off the field in protest: “I think that’s probably what the team should be doing. I think, again I go back to the point of financially effecting UEFA, FIFA… Imagine you have England, France, Portugal and Brazil all saying they’re not gonna play in the World Cup – that’s a big problem for FIFA. And all of a sudden that would completely change the game.”
He is also in favour of points deductions for clubs whose fans racially abuse players. To some these measures sound harsh, but Sordell’s response there is: “It needs to be that harsh. If what’s already happening isn’t working, then it’s not harsh enough, clearly – because people are still doing it.”
It’s hard to look at his point and disagree; social media has become a minefield for black players to navigate. Within the space of just one week earlier this season, there were three high-profile incidents of online racism targeting footballers. And this is to say nothing of those abusive fans openly and brazenly shouting racial epithets in person at matches, too. Impacting the bottom line of team owners through points deductions and stadium closures seems logically the best way (football is a business after all) to force the club owners to take racism seriously and put schemes into place to combat the ignorance and prejudice that helps foster those mindsets. It is unthinkable what black players are asked to go through in order to live their dream of being a footballer.
One day we’re going to look back at times like these and wonder why we ever questioned players walking off the pitch. It’s absolute madness to just continue to do your job and basically accept being racially abused whilst doing it
— Marvin Sordell (@MarvinSordell) October 14, 2019
Though it’s also heartening that some players, like Sordell, are comfortable speaking out about their mental health problems, especially when it comes to racism. If nothing else it will help fans realise these are not mythic heroes. They are simply people. “As sad as it is for players to struggle for mental health, it gives other people in every other walk of life, it gives them something to relate to [footballers] – and see them as equal human beings.”
Because these are normal people, equal human beings, and they must be treated with the same care. Yes, footballers may be able to block out noise and abuse when playing – but they shouldn’t have to. Racism shouldn’t be tolerated, and not just the racism of bad people, but the systemic and institutional racism.
As Sordell underlined, racism is a pernicious problem. There are kinds of racism that go beyond slurs at the game, such as the way in which black players are praised almost exclusively in terms of their physicality, or consistently referred to via animal similes. Or, as Raheem Sterling highlighted emphatically, the way certain corners of the press repeatedly harangue black footballers for anything and everything: what they wear, what they eat, where they eat, what they drive, how often they smile… the list is endless and ridiculous. And it all has to go.
Sordell is not expecting a quick fix, however: “It’s gonna take time. You know, [institutional racism] is hundreds of years in the making. It’s gonna take time to reverse that, to change that, but you have to start somewhere. You can’t expect things to change without actually making the change.”