The Premier League has decided that next week, black lives will matter. Or at least, it has decreed – at the behest of several club captains – that for the opening round of fixtures when the season resumes next week, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” can be borne on players’ shirts, in place of their names. It hasn’t formally decided whether black lives will matter beyond next week or for the rest of the season. But rest assured it will be consulting key stakeholders and making an announcement in due course.
All flippancy aside, it’s perhaps instructive to mark out the steps that have brought us to this point. In and of itself, the shirt messages are a laughably piffling gesture: a bit of fabric stitched to another bit of fabric, a show of support with the emphasis on the former rather than the latter. Yet it’s a gesture that would still have been inconceivable just a few years ago; perhaps even a few weeks ago, before the killing of George Floyd incited a wave of righteous fury that has challenged the very assumptions and orthodoxies upon which our society was built and in so doing forced all of us – sport included – to take a look at ourselves.
This is no sudden awakening. It may feel a little like that from within the world of walled privilege where most of us reside. But for many of the athletes and fans who are now speaking up, this is simply the vocalisation of feelings and thoughts that have been poaching under the surface for some time, held in check by the fear of retribution, by the fear of backlash, by a society and a public discourse that has long cast anti-racism, not racism, as the real disruptive influence.
All the same, this is a moment of genuine potential and one that thus needs to go well beyond talking. For the first time, people who have no interest in addressing racial inequalities are being confronted with its effects. A generation that has long revered Churchill as an emancipator and Geoffrey Boycott as the authentic voice of cricket and The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers as the pinnacle of British comedy is seeing its icons winched from their pedestals and given a dunking.
And so, here we are: where a Premier League so allergically hostile to the discourse of politics, ethics and human rights that it allowed clubs to be purchased by nation states now feels obliged to align itself publicly against systemic racism, a phenomenon some people will still try to tell you doesn’t exist. It’s a small step. A clumsy and frustratingly infinitesimal step. But it’s not quite nothing.
Over recent days no sport and no sporting body has been immune from reckoning, from a conversation about diversity or representation or demographic bias. Indeed, one of the great achievements of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to expose how racism operates in its totality: how an economy built on white exploitation and a self-image built on white supremacy generates white boardrooms and white administrations, how racism sustains itself through the nudge and the wink as much as the assault and the insult, how a well-meant sporting stereotype (“pace, power, physicality”) can spring from the same wilful blindness as a knee in the back of the neck.
There has been plenty of talk about personal journeys and education processes, of enlightening some and reminding others of the inequities and iniquities that brought us to this point. Too many white athletes have been prepared to let their black teammates shoulder the burden, hiding behind a black Instagram square and some warm-sounding platitudes. By the same token, it has been deeply encouraging that some have been prepared to go beyond the usual spiel and grapple with these issues head-on. Hector Bellerin, Daniel Ricciardo, Jimmy Anderson and Jon Rahm – to name a few – have all spoken well.
That process goes on. It needs to go on every day and every week, once the protests have died down and live sport has started again and the news agenda has moved on. It requires patience and intellectual curiosity and a willingness to look beyond the cosmetic. Addressing the lack of BAME coaches in English football, for example, is the sort of problem that could be fixed in a matter of months. So, too, the lack of non-white directors in major British sporting bodies, as revealed by a Sporting Equals study this week.
But chisel away a little deeper and the underlying issues remain untouched. The lack of black football coaches stems in part from a lack of black chief executives and sporting directors and owners. This stems in part from a systematic and racist assumption that black people cannot be trusted with positions of executive or financial power, one that also manifests itself in the lack of black representation in the judiciary, in business, in politics. This, in turn, has its roots in the historical concentration of wealth and power in white hands, often at the expense of enslaved or subjugated black peoples. Try and stitch that to the back of a football shirt.
These are not pleasant conversations to have. They feel horrible and uncomfortable, just as they should. They require individuals and organisations to keep talking about racism long beyond the point when people have tired of hearing about it. It won’t be polite. It won’t be easy. But nothing this important ever is.