Dave Whelan’s ignorant comments on race a stark reminder English football is not as acceptant as it likes to believe

The allegations of racist abuse which surround John Terry and Luis Suarez – strenuously denied by both players – following the events of recent Premier League weekends are, irrespective of the outcome, deeply disturbing. Whilst Terry and Suarez may yet be found innocent by investigations, the very fact that the accusations have been made suggests that underlying issues of race still persist throughout English football. The very fact that QPR and Patrice Evra felt moved to complain suggest that an atmosphere of discrimination still lurks within football.

As someone who has witnessed the changing landscape of the game over half a decade, Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments are pertinent. Globalisation, Ferguson argued, and the resulting consequence of managing imports from different countries and cultures is the “biggest thing that’s changed in the game in my 25 years [as manager of Manchester United].

It is undeniable that the exponential growth of English football, its exposure to markets around the world and the attraction it has for foreign players has made the country a significantly more serene place for footballers of all races to play. Ideally, the opening of dressing rooms and turnstiles alike to all races and nationalities should provide the basis for understanding and kinship to grow. The hidden, darker side of Ferguson’s message concerns the issues which arise when certain people simply wish not to accept these changes.

All of which makes Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan’s comments regarding the recent allegations all the more insidious.

We’re all equal, and we all play football and we should get on with it,” he thundered, demonstrating exactly the kind of ignorance which English football was synonymous with throughout its darkest hours. His are the type of comments which legitimised the concerted efforts of the National Front to infiltrate the terraces of English grounds with their hateful nationalistic bile, and which made defensible ‘fans’ throwing bananas at black opponents.

His comments are the crux of the problem, and precisely the type of attitude which ought to have been rid from the game decades ago. When Whelan argues that complaints are “out of order” and people ought to “get on with it,” he makes the comments based on the assumption of equality. Historically, the game – as a reflection of society – has not treated people equally. An attitude which wilfully turns a blind eye to problems perpetuates and exacerbates them.

Problematically, despite the advances which have been made, attitudes such as Whelan’s epitomise why certain issues still exist. It is a direct consequence of his attitude being shared by others in the game that only two black managers are currently employed by football league clubs. Similarly football continues to bury its head in the sand regarding its homophobic undercurrent. Given Whelan’s dismissal of otherness – to the accepted white heterosexual norm – how likely is any gay player likely to openly admit his sexuality now?

The idea that they must silently tolerate discrimination is hideously ignorant of the tragic fate which met Justin Fashanu, the only openly homosexual footballer who committed suicide in 1998, after a career which spiralled into lonely decline having been made a pariah.

English football remains a more closed world than it likes to believe. The blind refusal to take into account the mistakes football has historically made with regards issues such as race, which Whelan’s comments perpetuate, needs to change. Whilst football is an inherently more forgiving, acceptant game than in decades previous, recent events prove discrimination forms a part of the game. With attitudes like Whelan’s still somewhat institutionalised, they will remain for a long time yet.

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