Whenever I smell fresh cut grass I’m immediately transported into the skin of a 13-year-old boy walking up to the local shop to get sweets before the big game. It was semi-final day, and on this occasion Liverpool were to play Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough.
But of course, we all know what transpired to make that casual walk to the shop and the smell of my neighbours freshly cut grass fuse in my memory to permanently capture the terrible events of that day. Hooliganism had caused the fans to be separated into pens so that they couldn’t access each other or the pitch, so when the doors opened and unticketed crowds spilled in, there was nowhere for the fans up the front to go, those horrifying images are still with me.
Being a fan of football in the ’80s wasn’t an easy thing. Hooliganism marred the sport for so many years. But slowly its insidious presence seemed to ebb its way out of the sport. But the mentality wasn’t so easily defeated. There were moments, like what we saw in Lansdowne Road in 1995, that elucidated it wasn’t gone but rather simmering.
Again, the image of the little child crying on the pitch as members of An Garda Síochána fearlessly took on English hooligans is one, I’m sure, most of us recall.
Football has always had wonderful moments that live on in memory but also, unfortunately, it has moments we would rather forget. What occurs in football stadiums doesn’t occur in a vacuum. People in those stands are members of our society.
As a systems-trained consultant, I am fully aware that when you see racist behaviour, like what we saw last week after England lost to Italy on penalties, that behaviour is a symptom of a much wider and more serious illness, systemic racism. This is something I’m only beginning to understand.
I think my work on inclusion has brought me into contact with systemic racism. As a teacher, I have never worked with a black colleague. I haven’t met many black teachers in 20 years of experience. The response to that piece of information could be, ‘but sure they don’t want to work in that profession’.
Like when Muhammad Ali threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio River, because a restaurant refused him food because he was black. The same voice might say, ‘but there were plenty of restaurants that would serve him, why didn’t he go there?’ And it’s that kind of thinking that allowed Jim Crow laws to exist for as long as they did.
And when 'football supporters’ (I use the term lightly) launch racial abuse against players because of the colour of their skin, we have to ask ourselves; what in the system allows this behaviour?
Could it be anything to do with the Home Secretary diminishing the team's stance on racism by taking a knee before each game as ‘gesture politics’?
And when asked what criticism she had of the people who were booing the taking of the knee, Ms Patel responded, ‘that’s a choice for them, quite frankly’.
The Prime Minister was equally muted in his criticism of the booing. But of course, both were vocally clamorous in their shock and horror at the racial abuse targeted at the teams young black players after they missed penalties. The racial attack on three British football players, while abhorrent, isn’t the real issue. And the people who launch those terrible attacks aren’t the real culprits. The issue here is the systemic nature of racism. We all have a part to play in that. And the sooner we realise that, the sooner we will be able to tackle the real issue.
So this cancer in our society will stop metastasizing and all members of society will be viewed on the content of their character and not the colour of their skin, to echo Dr King’s words.
So that players no longer have to worry about having banana’s thrown at them, monkey chants levelled at them, called terrible racist names by fellow players or snubbed during handshaking before the match because they are black.
Marcus Rashford has done more in his short life than most of us can dream of in a lifetime. His humanitarian work during the global health crisis is a remarkable bright light for all young children to emulate. What a positive figure he is. It is people like Rashford and those great ones that have gone before him (Ali, King, Parks, Lewis etc) that refused to accept racist norms in society, and dented the universe of civil rights leading by example.
It should not be the responsibility of the England football team to teach society the need for racial equality. If there is to be a systemic shift, those in power need to finally understand, what they say and do, filters down into society and when they fail to openly criticise racism they are creating the culture for it to thrive.
It’s time we took a real stance against racism and not just lip service because it suits a particular mood at a particular time.