2020 has been marked irrevocably by two viruses — COVID-19 and global anti-blackness — both with no clear vaccine in sight, but perhaps as Black Lives Matter becomes less of a controversial statement and more a call to action, we can as a society begin to map out a way forward. EURO 2020 was meant to have started on Friday 12th June 2020, with England’s first game v. Croatia kicking off on Sunday 14th June; instead it has been postponed along with everything else and we were left inside with no distractions but to address the imbalance in our communities.
Expectations for success at upcoming tournaments are at an all-time high and public sentiment, while ever in flux, is more positive than not. For the first time in a while, there’s more than a whisper of hope. When asked how current players match to those in ’90 and ’96, manager Gareth Southgate chooses to side-step nostalgia, “I think those teams were a little bit further ahead than us currently in terms of quality of players, certainly in bedding down some of the positions and with a regular captain.” And focuses on development, “I think our team is coming, our group is showing more maturity. Lots of them have shown that during this lockdown. . . . I think we have an opportunity.”
Hope springs and challenges are risen to, not only in football but outside of it — Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho have been very out-spoken in their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. “You have got a generation of players who recognise their platform and they know their voice carries weight.” Southgate said, “They see the power in that, and young people see the power in being able to get their voices heard — as we have seen in the last week in the most powerful and most important of messages.” But with speaking out has come scrutiny, with scrutiny comes pressure and this pressure falls unevenly on the shoulders of black players who are questioned the most. This reveals a degree of complacency toward non-black players and within the structure of the football industry.
Sterling on Newsnight spoke at length on the need for the representation of black people within the structure of the football industry, not only at the executive level but at coaching level and throughout. Statements in support of Black Lives Matter from different organisations abound, but there has been no structural change, no real commitment. In many ways the implication of the silence from decision-makers and higher profile non-black players is that this is an issue to which can be paid lip service but not one that requires immediate action.
What is apparent to me is that all the protests and the marches are more powerful when there is a complete mixed group of society taking a stand, because it can’t just be black people who are speaking and making the point. In the end, it needs a united approach to be able to make change and give everybody the opportunity to enforce change. So, I would feel a responsibility both with my experiences but also in the position I’m in, my voice carries weight, I know that. I have an opportunity to influence people and I have to use that responsibly.
Though Southgate feels a personal responsibility, can make some change within his position and utilise his voice, his reach is limited. Collective effort is needed, a structural upheaval is demanded. Measures to protect black players and fans need to be taken more seriously and silence or deflection when it comes to addressing links between football fans and white supremacist organisations needs to end.
Southgate’s clear that there is a need for greater involvement across the board. “I think for some of the decisions that need to be made, we need to affect white people. And sometimes black voices will be able to make the difference and other times they won’t. So, it’s got to be a combined effort, to be able to make the change and to be able to influence change.”
Sadly, it is evident that a sense of responsibility is not enough, individual black players taking a stand is not enough, organisations posting symbolic support is not enough. So, what does concrete commitment look like, what does accountability look like and what does change in the face of hope look like? The Black Collective of Media in Sport has set out a seven-point plan in an open letter sent to leading print and broadcast outlets. This plan has been backed by a mixture of players, administrators and journalists across various outlets.
It reads, “This last few weeks have brought an exhausting and overwhelming sense of frustration, grief and sadness, following the violent death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Aubrey. Although these incidents occurred in the USA, the systemic racism that enables tragedies like this to occur also exists in the UK”.
For UK Sports, this has been the clearest mandate. It does away with platitudes, empty words and symbolic support and requests tangible change, something that can be measured, something that requires investment from those with the power to affect change. If the industry must radically change, for us to move forward, for hope to spring into something concrete and for the sacrifices of all those that came before, those who educated themselves, those who were effectively silenced to mean something, then this is a start.
For Gareth Southgate, his team and football in general — they must reach for something beyond symbols, hashtags and the right soundbites. It appears that there has to be an element of hope and aspiration to something more off the field, with an actual commitment to care about black lives in the sport in a way that lasts far beyond a brief statement or moment of interest. It appears we’re on the cusp of a moment. But it’s also clear that this moment needs a push. It needs us all to take a stand to take it all the way forward.