Oliver Holt: Why no one can pretend anymore that racism isn't rife in English football

Well, at least no one can claim there is not a problem any more. It’s in the open now. It’s been flushed out. It’s crawled from underneath its rock and is blinking in the light.

Irrespective of what did or did not happen between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra and John Terry and Anton ­Ferdinand, no one can pretend any more that the English game is not riven by racial prejudice.

You only have to look at the ­vehemence of the reaction even to trying to debate the subject to see how deep-rooted and widespread is the problem.

The former England footballer Stan Collymore raised the issue on Twitter and in his TalkSport radio show and was deluged with the worst kind of racist abuse from so-called football fans.

Ferdinand himself was racially abused on Twitter after he mentioned messages of support he received for giving a ­statement to the FA about his altercation with Terry.

And Newcastle United, to their credit were sufficiently concerned about racist abuse levelled at teenage striker Sammy Ameobi on Twitter, that they called in the police yesterday.

Not that it came as a surprise, ­particularly. When The Daily Mirror began to campaign several weeks ago for an equivalent of the Rooney Rule to be introduced in English football, it elicited a similar response.

That response was fury, often articulated with vile insults, that the issue of the lack of black managers in our game was even being discussed.

The explanations for their under-representation, in most cases, were depressingly retro. They boiled down to the idea black ex-players were either too lazy or too dumb to study for their coaching badges.

Even though it was hardly radical, putting forward the idea black ex-players might actually be being discriminated against was met with utter dismay. Anyone with any knowledge of the evolution of the struggle against racism knows that is the standard response to the issue.

The American comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher referred to it as part of the reaction to the news that the hunting camp owned by ­Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was called, until recently, Niggerhead.

The name was written on a large rock at the entry to the camp until it was painted over.

“In today’s Republican party,” Maher said, “there is only one correct answer to the discussion about racism. And that is: There is no racism in America anymore. Except reverse-racism against whites.

“If you think racism isn’t a problem anymore, you must be living under a rock – on Rick Perry’s hunting camp. But that’s the point. Denying racism is the new racism. To believe, as a majority of Fox viewers do, that reverse-racism is a bigger problem than racism, that’s racist.”

Maher’s absolutely right, of course. And American sport, too, so often thought of as colour-blind, is wrestling with its own racial issues at the moment.

It has been 11 years since one of the last race scandals here when Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker was asked by Sports Illustrated magazine whether he would consider playing in New York. “I’d retire first,” Rocker said.

“It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.

“The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English.

“Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?”

Rocker was suspended for the first 14 games of the season but the racial issue that is provoking argument here now is wider than one man’s opinions.

Some commentators have begun to suggest the NBA lock-out has wiped out the opening month of the basketball season is a racial struggle as well as a financial fight over the league’s income.

Influential sportscaster Bryant Gumbel labelled NBA commissioner David Stern someone “who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys”.

Gumbel was heavily criticised for his comments because Stern is widely viewed as a progressive voice in racial issues. But they focused attention on the fact the lockout is a battle between players of whom 84% are black, and owners, 29 out of 30 of whom are white.

The only black owner is Michael Jordan but a Washington Post article a fortnight ago characterised the NBA row as ‘the older white men now asking the young black men to take a pay cut in order to cover their purported losses’.

The column mentioned San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, who heads the owners’ labour relations committee, has been one of Rick Perry’s top 10 donors during the past decade.

It mentioned LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a real-estate mogul who owns 10,000 apartment units and has been the subject of racially loaded housing discrimination suits.

And it made reference to the verbal attack on LeBron James by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert when James left Cleveland to join Miami Heat last year, which attracted criticism from the Rev Jesse Jackson. He said: “Gilbert speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Jackson said. “His feelings of betrayal personify a slave-master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave.”

The likelihood is that because the NBA has been seen as a progressive league, the racial undertones to the dispute will be forgotten when the lockout ends.

The problem for English football is there are signs of a new militancy among black players who have grown disillusioned with what they perceive as past failures to tackle racism in the game.

Men like Blackburn Rovers forward Jason Roberts are happy to stand up for what they believe in and not remain silent. For them Ferdinand v Terry has become a test case and their attitudes have been hardened by the racist bile spewing from the lips and the keyboards of so many fans.

However the case is resolved, the issues it has brought to the fore mean football in this country will never be quite the same again.

Newcastle report racist tweet to police  

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