From Altruism to Racism: Football’s Unique Role in Society

Football has always been far, far, greater than the sum of its parts. It is a vehicle for change, a sense of belonging, a source of togetherness, and a universal language. It possesses a unique ability to transcend; to move beyond sport and play a pivotal role in the most pressing issues of our time.

Recent weeks have made this truth abundantly clear. From Marcus Rashford’s altruistic campaigning against food poverty and inequality, to Gary Lineker, shedding light on the harrowing circumstances experienced by those fleeing war and persecution, football’s socio-political influence has yielded genuine positivity amid the darkest of times.

But this unique trait is a double-edged sword. The 2019/20 season saw a marked rise in racist and homophobic abuse at football matches- a new chapter in the sport’s unwanted association with discrimination. Further to this, division has arisen over footballers taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, with supporters of Burnley infamously flying a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner above their fixture with Manchester City. With these issues in mind, it is important to have a frank discussion about football’s role within wider society.

Football as a force for good

The COVID-19 pandemic is heaping disproportionate levels of suffering on the poorest in society. In response to this injustice, Marcus Rashford has taken a stand, forcing the Conservative government into a u-turn over providing food vouchers to the poorest families in England. The Manchester United forward- who has spoken openly about his experiences with food poverty as a child- has been relentless in his pursuit of equality, recently backing a cross-party parliamentary bill to fund free breakfast provision in schools.

Yet although it is Rashford garnering headlines, football’s involvement in counteracting food poverty is nothing new- tremendous work occurs behind the scenes on a regular basis. Just last month, the ‘Irons Supporting Foodbanks’ group- consisting of West Ham fans ‘keen to support those in need’- delivered a van load of pizzas plus bags of clothes to Newham Foodbank, an organisation that provides three days of ‘nutritionally balanced emergency food and support’ to local people. With the pandemic shining a spotlight on economic inequality, the importance of such gestures cannot be overstated. 

2020 has also given rise to considerable furore surrounding migrant channel crossings, with newspapers and politicians alike depicting the issue as an ‘invasion’. Such inflammatory terms are used in spite of the unthinkably perilous journeys that refugees undertake, and the immense trauma they encounter following their arrival in the UK.

Gary Lineker has provided a welcome counterpoint to this dehumanising coverage, expressing enormous sympathy with forcibly-displaced persons and publicly announcing his decision to house a refugee in his Surrey home. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Lineker said:

‘My kids are all grown up so I’ve got plenty of room so if I can help on a temporary basis then I’m more than happy to do so. Why not?’

As with Rashford’s campaigning, Lineker’s gesture is simply a more visible example of the outstanding work that goes on behind the scenes. From the Huddersfield Town Supporters Association, who organised a sponsored walk to raise funds for refugees at the height of the 2015 Refugee Crisis, to Celtic FC, who donated the entire proceeds of a charity match to an international aid agency working with those affected by the crisis, the football community has time and time again stood up for forcibly displaced people.

Football as a source of division

Despite this fantastic work, football’s interaction with socio-political issues is not always positive, as evidenced by the racial hatred still habitually hollered from the stands. According to statistics released by anti-racism group Kick It Out, the 2019-20 season witnessed a 42 percent increase in discrimination at both a professional and grassroots level, with a 53 percent increase in reports of racial abuse and a 95 percent rise in reports of abuse based on sexual orientation. This is a continuation of a longer-term trajectory- in January 2020, Home Office statistics revealed that football-related racist incidents more than doubled over the course of the three preceding seasons.

Responding to these sinister developments, Kick It Out had this to say:

‘Racism is both a football and societal issue, and it is clear that we are living in a climate of rising hatred and tribalism across the world. In this country, the situation is no different and the language of division has become normalised within our political debate – and our politicians must take the lead in countering that.’

Over the summer, racial tensions reached unprecedented levels on an international scale, with the killing of George Floyd triggering Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a plethora of debate regarding the prevalence of systemic racism. This tension has permeated into football, with many supporters divided over whether it is right for footballers to ‘take the knee’ before matches as a showing of solidarity. Last month, QPR and Coventry City announced their decision to cease partaking in the gesture, and a host of other clubs have since followed suit.

In the words of QPR Director of Football Les Ferdinand, the gesture has become a ‘fancy hashtag’ and ‘little more than good PR’. Ferdinand’s argument revolves around the idea that the ‘meaning has been lost’, and that the gesture is essentially redundant unless accompanied by wider efforts to tackle racial discrimination both in football and in wider society.

Ex Man City defender Micah Richards has disagreed with this viewpoint, stating that ‘even if kneeling helps one person or changes just one person’s mind’, it is still the right thing to do. In Richards’ opinion, ‘you’ve got to do it until everyone agrees’.

These words allude to the power and influence that football has, and how if utilised correctly, can be a real force for good in society. The discrimination that continues to blight the game is a deeply distressing issue, and of course must be decisively tackled. But concurrent to this, the progressive power of football should be celebrated, nurtured and encouraged. At a time of enormous upheaval, it has provided a rare ray of light.

Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, a group of immigration solicitors that provide assistance to undocumented migrants.

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