Racism In football: Herman Ouseley’s Memoir Reveals How Much Progress Has Been Undone By Social Media

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The founder of Kick It Out writes that many of the mistakes of the past are being repeated again, three decades after the organisation was formed

Lord Ouseley has finally stepped back from public life after decades of work against racism (Photo: Getty)

 

It is important to look at the past to avoid repeating history’s mistakes, so I read with interest an advanced copy of Lord Herman Ouseley’s memoir, Belonging, due to be released in September, when it arrived in the post last week.

Lord Ouseley was in the thick of trying to get football to fight back against racism, a founding member of Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football in 1993 – which later became Kick It Out – and its chairman for 26 years. Ouseley is 76 years old now and decided it was time to step back from the pressures, stresses and strains of public life.

While much of the book covers his work pursuing equality and combating society’s racism and discrimination through working in local government and leading public bodies, there are some punchy chapters about his years locking horns with football’s chairmen and chief executives.

They were some grim times. “In those days racial harassment and abuse was rife,” Ouseley writes, “with many incidents going unreported. Hooliganism, racism and violence were features of football in England.

“Black professional players had to experience and cope with abuse and harassment, from their own team’s supporters as well as opponents, often with no intervention made to prevent or stop this. Those who challenged or reacted against such behaviour often ended up being punished for their retaliatory and self-defensive actions… Black fans loved the sport, but the few who attended games would have to keep their heads down and put up with the racially-charged abuse that raged around them.

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“I know this from personal experience. I have endured such indignities and have felt humiliated when going into football environments; being spat at or threatened with violence, was common.”

Hitting a brick wall of denial

Ouseley eventually stopped attending matches, such was the awfulness of the situation.

What he writes reveals some stark parallels with the current day: crucially a failure to admit there is a problem, as is the case with social media companies right now.

When Kick It Out started campaigning they hit a brick wall of denial in governing bodies. Instead, they turned to clubs, urging all Premier League clubs to commit to promoting their work.

“The then-chair of Manchester United, Martin Edwards, said that they were too busy to take part as they were now back in European competition,” Ouseley recalls.

So they had to apply clever tactics, while Ouseley leant on his network. He knew Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Audit Commission, who knew the chairman of Manchester City, and persuaded them to sign up.

“I was able to tell Manchester United their neighbour would be part of the campaign, and to avoid the embarrassment of being perceived to be uncaring and unwilling to challenge racism, they should sign up.” He adds: “The fear of being named and shamed was a vital tactic.”

Players “felt powerless” at the time and Ouseley “was accused by some of creating the problem.” Football’s leaders were of the view that it was a societal problem – how many times have we heard that since? – that “all will be well in a matter of time without any external influence”.

Discussions with the FA, the Premier League and other bodies in the 1990s – about a lack of trust in reporting abuse, weak punishments, improving the diversity of off-field staff – were ignored, and the organisations only started implementing changes 20 or more years later.

They reached out to the FA “for that leadership, but it was not always forthcoming,” he writes. Although he still credits the FA chairs – David Triesman, David Bernstein, Greg Dyke and Greg Clarke – for the incremental changes they affected in spite of the cumbersome structures around them.

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Sir Alex Ferguson’s support

Kick It Out knew they needed high-profile players to fight their corner to get going, and he praises the first to put their heads above the parapet: Paul Elliott, Garth Crooks, Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson, John Fashanu, Ricky Hill, the Stein brothers and others.

And there are some revealing passages about those who made a difference in the beginning. “Perhaps Kick It Out’s biggest coup in the early years was getting legendary manager Alex Ferguson to give the campaign a boost. It was a wet night in south London on March 7, 1995, when Alex brought Manchester United to play Wimbledon at Selhurst Park.

“Just before kick off, a banner was unfurled on the centre of the pitch which read ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ and at the centre of those holding it was Ferguson, getting soaked in the downpour.”

He adds: “Sir Alex Ferguson’s presence and visible commitment to the struggles against racism… sent out a powerful message of endorsement for the campaign. He had a formidable reputation for championing the underdog and challenging injustices.”

Other managers given credit for support are Graham Taylor, David Pleat, Ron Atkinson, Peter Shreeves and Sir Bobby Robson.

“During the 1990s… Arsenal welcomed local school children to the stadium to hear about the life experiences of their superstars, such as Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira,” Ouseley also writes. “They told of the abuse and discrimination they suffered, how much it hurt and how they dealt with it… Such days offered hope and optimism for the future as young people learned to see racial and other abuses as unacceptable.”

He also notes Chelsea chairman “Bruce Buck… worked tirelessly with the owner Roman Abramovich to shift the club’s image from being associated with racial harassment, abuse and hate-related violence to that of an organisation now seen as exemplar in tackling such evils.” Abramovich “does not say much, but his commitment to equality are second to none in football.”

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It is sad to realise, as Ouseley chronicles it, that though progress was slow, over the years it was nonetheless made: yet that good work has been undone by the abuse moving online.

“Thankfully, the current and next generation of footballers are showing signs that they will not leave any of this unchallenged, and want action to be taken by the authorities now,” he writes, citing good work done by Raheem Sterling, Tyrone Mings and Marcus Rashford.

“There is still the pathetic responses from the social media networks that they are doing all they can, but that is all you get out of these billionaire entrepreneurs. They do not appear to have the will or courage to just do it. They have the technology, but they are spineless and uncaring about the suffering endured through vile the messages on their platforms.”

Ouseley’s sharp voice will be missed