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Counterpoint: The Racist English Soccer Chairman Is Racist

English soccer has a diversity problem, which is no surprise given how quickly some have rushed to defend an overt racist.
November 26, 2014, 1:10pm
Photo by Kicka239 via Flickr Creative Commons

"There is no racism in football," Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on October 3 in regards to the fact that only two of the 92 teams in the English Football Association have black managers. "If you are good, you are good. If you are good, you get the job. If you are good, you prove you deserve the job. Football is not stupid to close the doors to top people. If you are top, you are top."

Please keep these remarks in mind as I run through a few events that have recently transpired in the English soccer world.

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Malky Mackay, the former Cardiff City manager, had texts leaked in which he texted, among other things, "Nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers," "Not many white faces amongst that lot [a potential transfer list] but worth considering," a picture titled "Black Monopoly" where every square was a "Go to Jail" square, and "Fkn chinkys. Fk it." When the texts leaked, Mackay was about to be appointed Crystal Palace manager but was taken out of the running. The League Managers' Association excused the messages as "friendly text message banter," presumably because no Chinese, black, or Jewish person was on the other end of the messages.

Undeterred by his demonstrated racism, on November 19, Mackay was appointed manager of Wigan Athletic. "We need a strong leader who will command the respect of a very experienced and talented dressing room," announced Chairman Dave Whelan.

In an interview with the Guardian a few days later, Whelan, in an effort to defend the clearly racist man, exposed himself quite clearly as a fellow racist. "Do you think Jewish people chase money a little bit more than we do? I think they are very shrewd people…I think Jewish people do chase money more than everybody else. I don't think that's offensive at all," he said offensively.

For some reason, Whelan kept talking. "If any Englishman said he has never called a Chinaman a chink he is lying…there is nothing bad about doing that. It is like calling the British Brits, or the Irish paddies," falsely equivocated Whelan. Later, Whelan told Sky News that he has "hundreds and hundreds of Jewish friends…I've got loads of Chinese friends," which begs the question of how Dave Whelan defines "friend."

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Finally, after he finished insulting Jewish and Chinese people several times, he established he would "never" insult a Jewish or Chinese person. To conclude this real life Chappelle's Show sketch, Whelan promised he is so not racist that if (if!) he is found guilty of racism by the Football Association, he will fire himself.

That's right: Dave Whelan is so anti-racist that, if found guilty of being a racist, he will fire himself for being racist.

Perhaps just as disturbing as Whelan's remarks are the people who rushed to defend him. "I've worked under Dave Whelan twice —I know him very, very well," said Hull City Manager Steve Bruce. "There's no racism in him at all." Bruce further excused Whelan's words as "misplaced" despite them having been uttered on separate occasions.

Blackpool's chairman, Karl Oyston, also insisted Whelan isn't racist in a wandering statement that, if anything, only affirms Whelan's racism. "I've known him on a personal level for the past 10 years and that man is not a racist or a bigot. He says things as he sees them and is from a different generation but he's certainly not a racist." Former Wigan manager Roberto Martinez jumped on the racist-man-isn't-racist train, too: "You need to understand the person and also that Wigan Athletic has very strong values. Everyone is welcome there. The chairman has a career to show that." (Wigan's fans, meanwhile, gave Whelan a standing ovation in the first match after his remarks.)

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These are not random people on the fringes of the soccer world, which is an important distinction when considering the larger issue of diversity in English soccer. In addition to the dismal managerial statistic, Troy Townsend, education and development manager at Kick It Out, a nonprofit that addresses racism and discrimination in soccer, stated on a recent LawInSport podcast, "15 out of 20 clubs are all white within their boardrooms. The five clubs that have representation are mainly because of who their owners are."

These lopsided diversity numbers are nothing new. They've been on the FA's radar since at least 2004, when there were three black managers in the FA. For almost a decade, the dominant narrative has been, at its most charitable, that a lot of good people have somehow fostered a biased system. Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, has spoken of "a hidden racism which holds clubs back" in hiring minority candidates. Brendon Batson, the Premier League's advisor on equality, also said, "I have got no proof of racism whatsoever, but something is going on." Kick It Out chairman Lord Ouseley observed, "What you see at face value is not always reflective of the attitudes which are actually held deep down. It's easy to present yourself as being reasonable and fair, and to behave in ways that hide prejudice and bias."

This is where Mourinho's meritocracy angle becomes less plausible. It is a belief many inside the FA hold, including the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, who said in 2011, "If people are good enough, then they will get chances." (Scudamore, it should be said, was involved in his own controversy over sexist emails.) But a club's chairman is in charge of hiring its manager, its manager in charge of hiring players, and both are responsible for hiring staff. When chairmen and managers are either saying racist things or supporting one another when they say racist things, it's even harder to buy into the already implausible narrative that the most qualified people to work for soccer teams are overwhelmingly white.

As the LawInSport podcast pointed out, managers are hired quickly. The entire hiring process is dependent on networking—meaning the people the employer knows—and the impression the employer gets during interviews. Whelan's "loads" of Chinese and Jewish friends notwithstanding, the employer will decide who is considered for and ultimately fills the position based on his own conscious or subconscious biases and prejudices. Are we really to believe Whelan, who thinks "chink" is inoffensive and Jews are cheap, would consider Asian or Jewish candidates equally? Are we to assume rampant stereotyping doesn't influence his opinion of a candidate? Or that anyone who excuses this behavior is likewise unbiased? Considering the hiring process is opaque and undocumented, how are we to ever know the answers to these questions?

Whelan and Mackay's statements—and those who have rushed to their defense—have clearly demonstrated that the problem is not a latent racism embedded in a system, but overt bigots who are enabled by passive colleagues. The problem is not a lack of qualified candidates, but a lack of qualified people doing the hiring. The problem is not the definition of a qualified candidate, but the definition of racism itself. Everyone needs to stop pretending the racism in English soccer's hiring practice remains hidden, a fiction that only exacerbates Whelan's, Bruce's, and Oyston's insidious definition of racism that somehow doesn't include racism. If Whelan isn't a racist and neither is Mackay, then who is?