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Podcast: Racism and English football

Dr Daniel Burdsey discusses his new book on racism in English football and the problems the game faces.

Listen via Apple PodcastsSpotify or find your preferred podcast platform. Or watch the interview on the film below.

Find out more about Dr Burdsey’s book, Racism and English Football: For Club and Country.
Most of the podcast is transcribed below:

Hello, welcome to the University of Brighton podcast, I’m Richard Newman. This is Episode 111 of the podcast, which talks to academic staff and students about their work, has loads in the back catalogue. If you’re new to this thing, check it out. My guest this week is Dr Daniel Burdsey, deputy head of school for research in the School of Sport and Service Management. Dan’s research focuses on the sociological and geographical analysis of ethnicity and popular culture, and his latest monograph, Racism and English Football Club and Country, has just been released. Thanks for coming on, Dan. There’s lots to get stuck into about football and racism, but let’s just get to know you a little bit better first. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your work at the university?

Dan – Yeah, thanks, Richard, really appreciate the invitation to join the podcast today. I joined the university in 2004 where I joined what was then known as Chelsea School, based out in Eastbourne. And I joined there as a lecturer teaching on the sport studies and sport management programs. And over those sixteen years. So, I’m now, as you said in your introduction, the end of school in school of sport and Service Management with responsibility for research and enterprise. And my research over that time focuses on, as you say, the sociological and cultural geographical analysis of race and racism as manifested in popular cultural spheres. A lot of that has been around sport primarily, and within that a predominant focus on football. But I’ve also spent quite a lot of time writing about the English seaside and how that kind of repository of notions of whiteness and exclusion and racism. So, there’s the overarching, sort of theme is, is racism in popular culture. And within that two topics, very close to my to my personal life, as well as my professional one football and the seaside.

Richard – Where does the interest come from?

Dan – Yeah, I mean, that’s a really, important sort of frame or the way I try and talk about my research is that my own personal anti-racist politics are derived in many ways, not from the books I’ve read or are engaging with the work of sort of leading thinkers that came afterwards. I’m interested in these topics to my interest in politics, very much in general from the ground up, if that makes sense. I try and make that clear in what I write that. My interest in whether be football or the seaside are generated from my experiences in those cultural steers and as I say in this latest book on racism in football, it is written as an academic and hopefully there is enough in there to sort interest fellow sociologists and students of that topic. But it is also very much written from experiences as a fan and a participant in football. I’m very much a believer in what C. Wright Mills dubbed the sociological imagination, where we combine not only our sort of intellectual understanding from and theoretical framing, but with our personal experiences and all our personal biographies. So my point about coming to where my interest developed from, I kind of retrospectively, you know, I’ve been interested in the ideas and the sociological framing of these of these cultural phenomena, but it’s very much within the lived experience of someone who grew up loving football and love going to the seaside, that really generated my interest because it wasn’t long in experiencing those things by football and experiencing seaside cultures that I started to realize that these things were accessible for all. And there were the kind of inequities and exclusions which, you know, we recognize in other areas of life were also very present in these in these areas of popular culture, which I was enjoying.

Richard – Mm hmm. OK, so let’s get into the book and talk about English football and racism. Loads to talk about. I think we’ll start with some fan culture. And I think it kind of comes back to what we’ve just been talking about, about sort of experiences that you witness in football and issues in the stands. And I think anyone who’s been to a football match can probably remember at least one incident where a spectator around you may have said something racist and now it’s a lot easier to report. So, we don’t experience it may be as much because people can be caught easier, but it feels like it has crept in a little bit more in recent years. For example, we saw Raheem Sterling being racially abused at Chelsea a couple of years ago a fan was banned for life. And that when we see that, do you think its sort of reflecting society in a way?

Dan – Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, what you say there about experiences of, oh, you know, we’ve all been to the games and witnessed the racist episodes, you know, is a really sad kind of, you know, more than a footnote. It’s just it’s been a central sort of part of the canvas of my life of supporting football. I remember hearing and seeing these things in the 80s and 90s, and I still see them now. That was a big kind of thing I talk about in the book is recognizing that these things haven’t drifted away, but they didn’t go away, been here all along, and that’s something which is obviously very, very much known by those individuals who experience, who are on the on the end of those discriminatory comments. It’s you know, it is appropriate at one level to think about how football reflects society, but I would and I’m working through a lot of this with my students at the moment to think about that. Actually, football’s more than a reflection of society. You know, football is part of society. Is it quite common knowledge to think about sport as a sort of microcosm of society, but that sometimes gives sport almost a sort of free pass, that it’s a kind of innocent receptacle by which wider issues of race and racism are sort of forced, forced into? But that’s a common way of thinking about it I mean, with the issues in the last couple of years, that’s been a very common way of thinking and talking about racism in football, from media pundits, from players, that racism is a social problem. And it kind of pops out in in football in that kind of environment now, I think it’s important to say that, you know, there’s certainly evidence that football does reproduce broader forms of societal racism. There’s no doubt about that. We saw that post 9/11 where there was a real upsurge in Islamophobic discrimination on the terraces in football. And as Gary Neville, the Sky Sports Pundit, who sort of emerged as a sort of champion, for social justice, was saying, I think earlier this year, there’s no doubt that the Brexit culture or the Brexit mechanisms and the discriminatory mechanisms of that are reproduced in in football. And I would add that the wider discriminatory immigration climate around the hostile environment is also very, very present within that. But I would also say that. We face a danger in thinking the ideas of racism come from the society into football. And only working in that direction from society into football is actually football is generative of its own problematic racist practices and racist meanings and racist ways of thinking and talking as well. And it’s so really important that we recognize both that society does influence football, but also what happens in football can also have meanings and repercussions and outcomes which then generate into the wider society. And if we ignore the latter, to an extent, we kind of let it off the hook and allows people in football to perhaps argue that while it’s simply a cultural realm or an industry which is reproduced in wider social relations, of course it is. But we also must hold football accountable and recognize that responsibility and contribution to this.

Richard – With that in mind, has enough been done really? Because there’s often the question about whether football is institutionally racist. And I recently did an interview for another podcast with Chris Ramsey, the technical director at QPR former Brighton Defender. He believes it is he believes a lot of the things that are being spoken about are mostly lip service only. And when he looks back at that really what has really been achieved over the past few decades, he doesn’t really think enough is being done. So do you think that is the case?

Dan – Yeah, I’d be I’d be absolutely in agreement with that. That’s sort of common. Well, I would like to think the common feature of my scholarship over the last 20 years, if include my PhD studies on this, which has been a very critical appraisal of what happens in football and the inadequate response by football authority’s governing bodies, clubs, etc. I think I mean; the term institutional racism has a kind of, people are aware of that term post MacPherson inquiry and I think it has some benefits. But I would probably prefer to use terms which are more common within the sociological literature of systemic racism and of structural racism. I think they’re important because they help us to understand, it’s not just in the institutions where racism exists, and, of course, it does exist in other institutions, but it also exists in the processes and the procedures and the actions put into place in the structures and the systems, whether that be about recruitment of players, whether that be about selection of of coaching staff, whether that be in kind of sociological ideas of belonging and feeling included in the in the stadium. So I think I would tend to use or employ ideas of structural and or systemic racism. And in doing that, yes, I would say that characterizes what football unfortunately, is.

Richard – Yeah, yeah. And I think, you know, we recently saw we were talking about structures in football. We recently saw that the chairman of the Greg Clarke had to resign for using some pretty archaic comments and speaking to MPs. And now I think there’s a general feeling that people are actually accusing Greg Clarke of being racist, but certainly a lack of understanding and education on what is and isn’t acceptable to say and treat people as well. So, when the person at the top of the game in this country is saying those things, what does that say about the organization of football and the problems that have to be sorted?

Dan – Yeah, I mean, I heard a really interesting I think it was a caller on five live who is sort of juxtaposed what Greg Clark, said to someone else making a similar comment. And they come to the conclusion, quite rightly, that when you’re the head of the football association, you cannot make these mistakes. In fact, you cannot do this. And there’s no room for there’s no room for error. And it’s you used the term archaic, which I think is absolutely, an appropriate description to have someone who is the head of a huge organization, which, you know, is relatively diverse in its participant base. You know, that is absolutely not acceptable, not acceptable for someone to be to be speaking in that in that language. And let’s not forget it wasn’t one slip. It was, I think three or four comments which were racist, homophobic, sexist in their articulation and content. But. You know, we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t say this is just a one off, his record hasn’t been great for quite a while. You know, he was heavily involved as the head of the FA in the complaint, which any other Aluko made about her racist treatment by the manager, Mark Sampson. In England, women set up and the and the fellow coaches and let’s not forget, that was a complaint, which was the FA tried to bury. They tried to dismiss it. They tried to present Aluko as, you know, kind of the risky the risky black woman who was rocking the boat and didn’t know her place and was making a illegitimate complaint. And, you know, his involvement in that about the procedure and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport inquiry was appalling. You know, and Aluko was right. The complaint was upheld. So, this is this is a back story here, but I think it’s also important to think that Greg Clark isn’t alone. There is not just one Greg Clark. There are lots of people like this at the higher levels of British sport, there’s an article in the Telegraph in the summer, which I used with my students, which shows that the people in power in British sport’s governing bodies are nearly exclusively white and nearly exclusively male. And this is what Chris Grant, who’s a really very high ranking, influential black sports administrator, was saying in the summer. This is in many ways the problem of our times, of course, there are other problems in in sport, but it is what professional players are talking about. We’ve had people like Romelu Lukaku talking about what they see as the problem is that people in positions of power are simply not aware of what it’s like to be a black footballer, male or female. And they’re not arguing that it’s impossible to know that. Of course, one can be empathetic and supportive if you’re not part of a group or racially abused. That’s what I try and doing my research I am a white academic. I don’t experience racism. I accrued the privileges of whiteness, but I try and act as an ally and as a scholar of racism. But this is what these players were saying. You know, these people in the highest positions of sports governance who are, you know, not aware, to put it mildly, ignorant, perhaps of of the lived experience of being a sport person of colour.

Richard – How important is it then that the FFA gets the next appointment right?

Dan – Well, it’s absolutely critical, it’s absolutely critical. I mean, I keep referring to what I do, my students, because hopefully it comes across that this is the other part of my job, which I love just as much. And it’s so nice to be able to talk about your own research, your current ideas with your student cohort. And I’ve been talking to my third-year class on race, racism in sport, popular culture module, and talking about how we weigh up the significance of 2020, which, you know, in my years of studying racism is undoubtedly perhaps the most important year in my lifetime in terms of those sorts of developments, but also putting that in a broader historical context and understanding. We’ve had other important years, you know, 1968 or what have you and, you know, I think it is it’s a critical time. It’s an opportunity to appoint someone who is forward thinking, is aware of the, you know, the issues. But I would also want to suggest that it goes beyond Clark or whoever is promoted in to the position of the head of the FA because as critical race theorists would suggest, you know, reflecting on, for example, the appointment of President Obama, you can have powerful people in that instance, a black man in powerful positions, but it doesn’t necessarily change every element of that society or that structure or that that industry. So, absolutely, the appointment of the head of the FA is perhaps the most important decision the FA are going to make in. Yeah, in this in this era. But it doesn’t stop with the appointment of the chair. You know, it’s about the broader cultural values of the institution and then hopefully will filter down to the game because you look at the top level of pool for the opportunities for black coaches, especially in management, that looks to be really difficult. And how long are we having this conversation? And there are so few black coaches in prominent roles, you can count them on two hands in management. You’ve got QPR, Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey in big positions, and Chris Heaton’s at Nottingham Forest, Nino Espirito Santo Wolves. And they really are just a few others. Does it fit into that same conversation then about the game being systemically racist? And is that basically only those routes being blocked only by a very actually small minority of the people who are running the game, who aren’t giving them the opportunities? Whereas actually there’s a huge desire to get more diversity in the game in general?

Dan – Yeah, I mean, I’m really glad that you mentioned the issues around coaches and managers, likewise with the you know, the governance and the leadership, I think it’s a really, really fundamental sort of pivot point for where football goes, football goes next. And it’s interesting because the football industry as a as a whole, I’m talking quite broad-brush strokes here has often been it’s often sort of utilized what we might call particular mechanisms of denial that denying that there is racism in football and one of the ways in which football and associated politicians or the media have sought to deny the issue of racism is I will look at look at the percentage of black footballers, look at the percentage of people working in the game. But when you break that down and then you analyse football in terms of its different sort of realms and levels, you know, you soon find that there are very few elements of professional football where people of colour are employed. One of those most obviously, is as players and the other is as stewards, and as people working in the service sector, providing refreshments in professional football stadia. And, you know, we can see that now these are quite embedded colonial sort of limited roles and stereotypes, that it’s the black folk that entertain and serve the white customers, if you like. So there’s a real unevenness in inclusion throughout football. And that helps us to understand this issue around coaches and managers, because, again, the kind of mechanisms of denial will say, well, it can’t be about racism because there are so many players and that’s sort of, you know, a teachable moment at work for the students to say, well, actually, this is how racism works. Racism can be inconsistent, it can pick different elements, different times. Racism works by allowing or facilitating the inclusion of perhaps one racialized community and not the other. But it also can work by including a particular minority ethnic community in one aspect of an industry or profession and not others. So, we can see the players, you know, and for example, African Caribbean’s have historically been racialized, as you know, in inverted commas, natural sports, people who make good footballers. The same sort of racist logic has racialized African Caribbean’s as not having the kind of cerebral or leadership qualities which people would see to be required to manage a football club. So actually, I think the exclusion of coaches of colour in the men’s and women’s game, in the women’s game, the representation is even lower, is part of that of that systemic, systemic problem. I to yeah.

Richard – The Black Lives Matter movement that was well marked in football. And as we record this, players are continuing to take a knee before kick-off. But what’s the next step? Because is it going to become so normalized that the real reason for it to raise awareness starts to get lost, maybe starts to become a bit more of a routine? I think when this came in, that was a bit of criticism from some players. I think it might be someone like Andre Gray, an interview that I read that taking a knee or wearing a t shirt to highlight a campaign, for example, kick it out isn’t really enough. It’s a bit of a box ticking exercise.

Dan – Yeah, yeah, I mean, there’s been a lot of debate around the sort of wearing of of of T-shirts in in, you know, in the ANTIRACIST week of action and the last five years ago, we’ve seen a lot of high-profile players, black and white, saying, look, we’re not wearing the t shirts. I mean, it’s partly related to the episode between Anton Ferdinand and John Terry, which led to Anton’s brother, Rio, and other saying, we didn’t feel that that that organization was sufficiently supportive. But, yeah, it’s a really important debate to have and. You know, I was really, really interested in Les Ferdinand’s comments recently that he was someone in particular who was saying that he felt that the taking the knee at the start of the game is sort of losing its power. It becomes part of the institution of starting a football match as much as the fair play handshake and the and the playing of the Premier League Premier League anthem. But I think and again, this is what I would try and work through with my students, is that it’s these things are never an either or trying to get away from the binary thinking that it’s either a good thing or it’s a bad thing. You know, I’m someone who’s critical of the way in which subdominant institutions, particularly football, could often articulate or demonstrate a form of multi culturalism, strokes of diversity rhetoric, which is very superficial. It could be reinforcing stereotypes. It’s kind of for the benefit of themselves. And this, again, is what critical race theorists would argue is an example of what they call interest convergence, where things which can seem to be forms of progress, for communities of colour are only permitted when they actually benefit the white institution or the white elites as well. And we’re seeing that definitely the anti-racist gestures in in football are definitely providing good sort of corporate image for the Premier League, even though they’ve now replaced the Black Lives Matter symbol on the jerseys with that quite sort of anodyne no room for racism. But, you know, alongside that sort of critical thinking, I also think about what that means. You know, when I sat down in June and watched that first game after the restart, which was Aston Villa against Sheffield United. And on the television, of course, and saw the players do that, you know, that was a sort of hairs on the back of the neck when you think about what’s happened in the U.S. and the absolute vitriol which is being meted out to Colin Kaepernick and others for this to see 22 players and the officials do this, you know, it was a powerful moment. And I think about, you know, what it means to my, you know, talk about this with my nephew, who’s 10. And, you know, I did when I was 10. This wasn’t happening. Of course, it wasn’t. He’s 10. I think about who he who he loves. And I’m going to give away who we both support now. You know, he loves Dominic Calvert Lewin and he loves Andre Gomez. And there is heroes. And to see those people doing that, you know, at the age of 10. You know, I think it’s incredibly powerful, so I’m critical in some ways of the kind of institutional mechanisms by which anti-racism can become sort of superficial and corporate in professional sport. But I also wanted to retain a sense that these things are significant. They are powerful, not least on the younger generations.

Richard – Yeah, and let’s talk about football media treatment of black footballers. Raheem Sterling’s had a really tough time in recent years with some papers, and then they sort of flipped the other way. And then he be outspoken about racism in a game for praising him to talk, talk out about that kind of stuff. And then the other side is that Marcus Rashford at a moment is the nation’s darling with his incredible work on free meals and the pressure from the government. Do you think black players of wealth in general, are treated differently to white players in a similar situation?

Dan – Yeah, absolutely, yeah, no doubt about it, I write quite a lot about Sterling in the in the book in a number of senses. I mean, I think Sterling, again, has emerged as a really critically important spokesperson for the current generation of black footballers. If you’d asked me a couple of years ago who might this chief spokesperson be? And I’m just talking about the men’s game for the time being, I wouldn’t have said Sterling. I didn’t think that he was the guy who was going to do that. But, you know, he clearly has. And he’s been a hugely important spokesperson and representative.

Richard – It flipped, it was the point it was a media story and the same was it the same week over a couple of weeks with different completely different reactions to Towson Adebayo and Phil Foden buying a house for their mum. And that was the moment where he said, I think he used the phrase that it was fuelling racism. That was the moment he really started to come to the fore with really pushing, you know, his views on his views on racism in the game.

Dan – Yeah, it was incredible and that came in an Instagram post. Yeah, that was that’s another interesting way in which players using their own personal platforms. But yes, Sterling’s been I mean, it’s a perverse level and scope of the way in which Sterling is demonized because he’s demonized for at times seeming to be too kind of thrifty. You know, he he gets demonized in the papers, shopping at Primark, going to Greg’s bakery.

Richard – EasyJet flight, I think was another one, wasn’t it?

Dan – Exactly. Yeah. And he also gets hugely criticized for perceived as being too profligate. And, you know, the whole thing around buying houses was, was part of that. And, you know, there’s some wonderful parts of Sterling’s charitable life, you know, he supported at the funeral of a young Crystal Palace player, who died as a teenager. He gave away a lot of free tickets to schools in his old school in the Borough. When Manchester City were playing in the in the Cup final last week or so, we saw very, very similar sort of framing as what happened with Sterling and juxtaposed where Rashford was reportedly buying some houses. And the same kind of racist framing came out, you know, quite soon after that happened. So, it’s the ways in which. Black footballers are spoken about and spoken to both in the media and in the social media, we must also remember is a way of social pressure and a form of the kind of machinery of racism, which is saying to black football players is fundamental, ‘know, your place’, you know, play football, be good win games, but, you know, don’t start throwing your money around or things like that. And that’s an ingrained racial stereotype which has been levelled at a black community for a long time.

Richard – The book sounds really interesting and all the links in the podcast description. Thanks so much for talking about it. We look forward to getting stuck into that. We end every podcast with some questions away from your work. It’s just a bit of fun. So, the first one is what advice would you give to your younger self?

Dan – Oh, that’s a good question. I think the advice would simply be to my younger self would be appreciate all the trophies Everton are winning because they’re not going to happen again for quite a while.

Richard – They played a lot better this season.

Dan – Thank you, Richard. I hope so, perhaps a real irony and a sad situation, but we’ll win something this season. I won’t be there to see it. But I’m fingers crossed that things change and we get in the ground.

Richard – If you could study any other cause that brighten, what would it be?

Dan – Oh, I mean, that’s a great question, because I’m so, so in awe of so many great colleagues across the across the institution such interesting stuff, I think it would be. Probably something of maybe around some of the human geography or film studies or, you know, the elements of humanities that look at sort of, you know, American history, think things like that. And as someone who studied for as an undergraduate and postgraduate know, I don’t want to underplay my own or, you know, kind of talk down what myself and my colleagues do in our own department. But no, I would love to do some of those humanities and social science subjects.

Richard – Yeah, great. And you pick a favourite place in Sussex.

Dan – I mean, I love listening to the other podcasts you doing this, and I’m always intrigued by what people answer here. I was born in Brighton and I’ve lived here all my life, apart from my time at university. So that’s. A very, very challenging question. You know, I would go quite specific, and I grew up in the north of Brighton. And so, it’s probably places like, you know, the walk up to the chattery on the downs, on the park. It’s those places which have such fond memories for me as a young person. And I can enjoy those places with family now. So, I would I would say those like those parts of Brighton.

Richard – And tell us something about yourself that a lot of people may not know.

Dan – Oh, yeah, I know I spent a lot of time writing about sport, but I’m just as much a music fan. I’m a huge music fan and I particularly like going to places which have significant musical folklore or related to the music industry. And I’m very, very fortunate to be able to visit a number of, for me, really significant music studios. So, I’ve been to Motown in Detroit, Stax in Memphis, and I’ve been to fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. And, you know, the great experiences for me, the first two are quite a quite touristy to go to the studios. But the latter, which is perhaps the least well known, is fame studios in in Muscle Shoals. And that’s a very, very hands-on experience. And we were very lucky when we visited those studios. The Blind Boys of Alabama were recording at the time in the studio. I’m not I’m not a musician, but I do try to play the guitar. I was able to pick up and play Jimmie Johnson’s guitar. Jimmie Johnson, probably not that well known, but, you know, he was part of the Swampers. And if you’re listening to Aretha Franklin. Wilson Pickett, Townes Carter, you’re hearing Jimmie Johnson’s guitar on those records. So, yeah, I’m a huge music fan and I love to go to to the kind of places where the where the music was created, which would give me so much happiness now.

Richard – And if you could invite three people to dinner, excluding family, past or present, who would they be and why?

Dan – Yeah, well, you know, given the game away for those who don’t know me that I’m a Everton season ticket holder it is such an important part of my of my life. So, I didn’t say that about the question, what do people not know about you? Because anybody who’s come within minutes of meeting me will know this. So, and if I was having dinner, I’m sure the conversation with move to football and Everton quite quickly. So, I would invite three people who played for Everton. I would firstly invite Cliff Marshall. Cliff was one of the first black footballers in in England in the early 70s, and he was the first locally born black football player for the Everton men’s team. He wasn’t the first player of colour to play for Everton. Mike Trebilcock played in the 60s Trebilcock, doesn’t identify as a multiracial person. And there were some guest players from Chinese players in earlier in the century. But Cliff was the first player to come from Liverpool, from the Liverpool neighbourhood in South Liverpool. And I want to talk to him and hear his stories about that role and then try to bring it more up to date. I would like to invite Valerie Gauvin, who is a top player for the women’s side. She’s a decorated French international born on the Pacific Island of Reunion. And I really want to hear about her experiences as a woman representing Everton and as a black woman in English football. What is really a very pivotal time for the women’s game. And the last one would be would be my hero. Neville Southall, was my hero growing up. He was the best goalkeeper in the world. It was incredible. And he was my hero as a player. But he was also very significant in supporting anti-racism campaigns in the 1990s. And he’s now gone on to become a really, really important advocate, an ally for trans communities and sexual minorities and other movements for social justice. I was very lucky to meet him once. I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I’ve stood up and lectured in front of eminent colleagues and students and large audiences. But I was never quite nervous as when I bumped into Neville Southall and had the chance to speak to him. So, I would invite those three key players, but also very important in our understanding of anti-racism and social justice in the game.

Richard – That would be a great dinner party. Thanks so much for coming on. Best of luck with the book. And as I say, we’ll put the links in its description. That’s it for this podcast. But please do share on social media if you can, and leave review on Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening.

Kerry Burnett • November 27, 2020


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