Time to blow the whistle: Sepp Blatter and Leadership

I know it’s not how we usually think of it, but a football pitch is – at least for those in the football industry (and let’s be adult and admit it’s an industry, not a game) – a workplace. Football might be something that rouses fervent passions, but the people manoeuvring the round thing from one end to the other and back are paid really rather handsomely for their skills. It’s fair to say that even cynics acknowledge as much. Here for example, is Charlie Brooker, commenting on the last World Cup:

A huge number of my fellow citizens tune in and witness a glorious contest of ecstatic highs and heartbreaking lows. I see 22 millionaires ruining a lawn.”

(And yes, I know we quoted this when we talked about football in the context of succession planning, but as quotes that put things in their place go …)

The fact that Wembley Stadium, Stamford Bridge, the Emirates Stadium and Old Trafford are indeed workplaces makes one aspect of the recent hoo-ha about Sepp Blatter’s comments on racism in football all the more extraordinary. While it was heartening to see not only players, but managers and football industry authorities in this country speaking out in shock and dismay at the suggestion that on-field racist abuse should be settled by a handshake, I only heard one commentator pointing out that racist behaviour on the pitch – or, indeed, on the terraces – is illegal.

While many players may dye their hair and enjoy evenings in the company of exotic dancers some years younger than themselves, they are not Silvio Berlusconi – legal immunity is not theirs for the self-declaration. The ‘it’s only a game’ line doesn’t wash either: is headbutting your opponent in a game of chess any different from the same offence in a car-park? As lines of defence go, it’s as bad as “Some of my best friends are …” or “I’m not racist, but …”.

And the problem is not just about ignoring the legality, even if it would have been reassuring this far into human evolution to have seen this mentioned more often. Football remains an extremely high-profile sport with a vast social and cultural reach. Name something else that sees us festoon our homes and cars with flags, import TVs into our more conventional workplaces or take time off to gather in heaving pubs and bars for international tournaments. Could the average man or woman in the street name twenty leading cricket players? Speedway riders? Pentathletes? Very unlikely.

Football is, no pun intended, in a different league. Like pop music and the movies, it’s in that public space that gets babies named after famous players and inspires changes of hairstyle. Hands up if your coiffure is influenced by Ben Ainslie or Victoria Pendleton? No-one? And can you imagine anyone funding a film called Pedal It Like Romero? Sail It Like Simpson? Kayak Like Brabants? Unlikely, although those are the surnames of three British Olympic Gold Medallists in 2008.

Racism in football matters not just because racism is undeniably wrong. It matters in football because of the power of football to set examples. It’s a point not lost on Dean Ashton, former England international player, in his comments published at the Show Racism The Red Card website:

It’s really important that players and famous people get involved with campaigns like Show Racism the Red Card, because we’d like to think that we’re the role models for kids these days and it’s important that we show them that racism’s not right.”

The position of footballers as role models was also not lost on player-turned-presenter Mark Bright and Minister for Sport, Hugh Roberston, interviewed by Radio 5:

[Bright] also gave a depressing insight into how players receive racist abuse via social networks such as Twitter. “It’s frightening,” he said, “absolutely frightening. If they don’t agree with you, people respond by playing the race card. It’s the c-word, the f-word, the n-word.” Bright gave chilling examples, all of which made the clip of Blatter’s interview sound even more irresponsible. As Robertson succinctly put it, for the kind of people leaving anonymous racist comments online, they’ll “see this as a nod in their direction”.

As an industry, football should – like any other – recognise that important cultural clues and values are set by the behaviour of those at the top. In areas where human differences are irrelevant, the metaphorical playing field should be as flat as the literal one: the groundsmanship of the metaphorical playing field, however, is the responsibility of those drawing rather larger salaries than the ground keeper. Even that hotbed of moral integrity in the upper echelons, free newspaper Metro, saw red over Blatter’s latest gaffe, quoting Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association:

‘I just feel it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,’ said Taylor.

‘When you see the corruption they’ve had at Fifa, the comments he made about homosexuals not going to Qatar, the way he talked about women’s football, the style of the arrangements for the World Cup, the fact he won’t have technology.

‘I think it’s really time to move over for Michel Platini.’

Football, as that list of past ‘offences’ hints, has a long way to go. Compare the FA’s fumbling progress to co-ordinate action against homophobia with the work of Ben Cohen’s StandUp Foundation and the willingness of Gareth Thomas to tackle the issue in that most notoriously effeminate of games, rubgy. (Cohen is heterosexual, but recognises an important issue; Blatter need not be anything other than Caucasian to understand the social impact of racism.)

So has the time come to forget the ball for a moment and tackle the man? Metro’s website is currently running a poll as to whether Blatter should resign. At the time of writing 92.44% think it’s time he made the long, lonely walk back to the dressing room. [And, as his remarks were made off the pitch, video action replay is now freely available at an Internet near you.] Mark Bright may have acknowledged that football involves what he oddly called ‘industrial language’, but surely there’s a common workplace turn of phrase that should apply here. “Clear your desk.”

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