Symbols and solidarity no longer enough amidst football’s racism crisis

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Football’s news cycle is as abundant as it is rapid. The racist abuse suffered by Glen Kamara during Rangers’ defeat to Slavia Prague in the Europa League will soon be forgotten amongst fresh stories until the next similar incident occurs. Empty rhetoric calling for action and condemning the sickening episode will fade into insignificance, authors satisfied by their moral self-assurance.

How does a writer not fall into the same trap? Indeed, perhaps this article is pure hypocrisy, another fruitless and fleeting condemnation of yet another racist episode. Or, perhaps, it is in answering this question that journalism can play an important role. Almost everything within football needs to change to arrest the viral spread of racism. This includes its reaction, and commenters must accordingly do their best to separate their social ego from pieces and offer concrete methods for change, rather than just clamours.

Looking at the incident involving Kamara and Ondrej Kudela at the Ibrox, the immediate element that demands change is the response of the institution. In every official comment, the most prominent phrase from UEFA has been that Kudela remains “innocent until proven guilty”. This is obviously a legal process that needs to be respected, but publicising this language to such an extent only contributes to the torrents of subsequent online abuse that Kamara and so many before him have received.

UEFA and football fans must ask themselves the simple questions straightaway. Why would Glen Kamara make this incident known if he wasn’t certain? Why would he bring upon himself the impending, traumatic experience of endless tribunals, bureaucracy and hateful doubters? Football needs to stop ostracising the victim in favour of the accused. It is embarrassing for the game to see more respect being given to Slavia Prague’s implausible explanations than Kamara’s hugely serious accusations that have no good reason to be devalued.

Empty rhetoric calling for action and condemning the sickening episode will fade into insignificance.

Following the abuse of England players in Bulgaria and a comment made by a match official in sending off Istanbul Basaksehir’s assistant coach, we are once again witnessing insufficient, reactionary paperwork as UEFA’s chief weapon against racism. Their three-step protocol of walking off the pitch in the face of abuse is outdated and should be secondary to preventative measures. Taking a knee and increased publicity for the issue has been positive in raising awareness over the past year, but publicity is by no means synonymous with progression.

Football as a global superpower, and UEFA as its European parliament, have the obligation to move on from symbols and seek genuine social change. What can inspire this is a successful precedent. UEFA’s current protocols of a wrist-slap and a fine are, if anything, endorsing racism, treating it like a bad tackle. Should Kudela be found guilty, he must be made an example of, with a year-long ban at the very least. His club Slavia Prague must then be banned for a period from UEFA competitions. This would represent a tangible albeit unideal step in establishing from the top down the unacceptable nature of racism.

Football has been waging a hushed war of words against racism for far too long. It has been established this year, notably in the Premier League, that this will not solve the issue. Footballers have the dream job of so many and carry responsibility with the privilege. Yet perpetrators of abuse such as Kudela are wrapped in cotton wool and treated with far less scrutiny than almost any other profession. Imagine a pundit being found guilty of similar bigotry in the past few years. They would rightly be cast aside by their company without deliberation.

Denouncing racism has for too long been an act of self-image

But as well as a vertical strategy, the game needs a horizontal one. Punishment needs to be the first step of many, as in isolation it can do more harm than good. Opinion can quickly be polarised, and the accused party alienated towards even more damaging beliefs. This is where football must engage in the uncomfortable process of analysing racism.

Inquests need to get to the heart of why people like Kudela are racist. Perhaps they are morons, unsalvageable in their ignorance. This is certainly how they come across. But this outlook will never truly solve the sport’s issue. The horizontal solution must come in the form of education and conversation with the guilty individual. Only when lengthy bans are combined with discussions on why, for instance, the official at the Başakşehir game displays a regressive, discriminatory outlook in calling an individual ‘the black one’, can football hope for an inclusive future. This is an infrastructure that UEFA, governing bodies and elite clubs must all have at their disposal.

Denouncing racism has for too long been an act of self-image. Those such as Kudela are hateful and ignorant, the scourge of our society, and UEFA must set hugely severe precedents in punishing them – but there must also exist a path to rehabilitation, to remove that scourge and ideally integrate its new outlook. Without education on racism’s roots and why it demonstrates such a hideous, oppressive attitude, we will be left only with reactionary measures. Reaction can only work in conjunction with prevention, and only when the likes of UEFA realise this can football think seriously about “kicking it out”.  

Image: Steindy via Creative Commons

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