No one ought to be surprised that racists, homophobes, misogynists, and anti-Semites occupy some of the foremost positions in football, and yet my first reaction upon discovering the messages exchanged by former Cardiff manager Malky Mackay and former head of recruitment Iain Moody was one of undiluted shock. Whether this owed more to the frankly bizarre set of slurs on show – ‘gay snakes’, ‘independently minded young homos’, ‘falsies’: all make an appearance – or the sheer flagrancy of their bigotry I’m not sure, but the shock was real enough.
It was only when the former Cardiff player Ibrahim Farah tweeted what he did that I grasped fully my ignorance, my naivety. I knew that the football establishment, like the establishment proper, had a serious problem with race. Duh – who didn’t? But I don’t think I believed that an elite-level football manager in 2014 would so brazenly communicate the stunning extent of his own bigotry to colleagues, even targetting his players with racial abuse. In other words, I was stupid. (NB: I suspect my being white had something to do with my initial shock, too.)
I’d seen Ron Atkinson call Marcel Desailly the most abhorrent word in the English language live on air – and then secure a well-paid job with MUTV. I’d seen Richard Keys and Andy Gray ‘banter’ their way to the sack – only for my celebrations to be curtailed when Talksport hired both. I’d seen Luis Suarez – Football Writers’ Player of the Year – and John Terry – ‘Captain, Leader, Legend’ – both racially abuse colleagues. I’d seen Steven Taylor compare his own teammates to the most outrageous caricature of an ‘African tribesman’ and go unpunished. And I’d seen Glenn Hoddle waltz his way back into punditry - and now coaching – despite his stated belief that to be disabled was to have sinned in a past life. Hell, I see Ched Evans being rewarded for the rape of a young woman with a Sheffield United contract. These are but the first instances that came to mind; there are of course very many more.
This is why there are so few gay players, or black managers, or women at boardroom level: this culture of silence, where the intolerable is tolerated. Who confronted Malky Mackay when he openly mocked and marginalised Ibby Farah on the basis of his race? Which player or fellow staff member voiced his discontent, if indeed they felt discontent? Not Iain Moody, that’s for sure, and from the looks of it no one at all. There’s no reason to suggest that this is exclusive to Cardiff and every reason to suggest that it prevails at every level of the football pyramid. You can bet that Farah’s words – ‘People would listen to the manager and not me’ – chime with a significant number of Britain’s professional, semi-professional, and amateur players of colour.
What we must eventually ask ourselves is why such a culture exists and is allowed to continue to exist. At its root, this isn’t a ‘football problem’ but a social one. As John Barnes has pointed out on more than one occasion, ‘Until we get rid of [racism] in society, we won’t get rid of it in football.’ The majority will rightly voice their disgust at Mackay and Moody, but one must also keep in mind the structural inequalities that allow such bigotry to thrive in the first place. Until we do, there will be more racism, homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism in football – and by our silence, we will have helped to enable the perpetrators.