A lot done, much more to do when it comes to racism in football
The biggest problem in football is not black and white, it's much more complex, says Paul Dempsey, but this week we have had too many mixed messages.
Let's be honest, football is actually no good at sorting out its problems. In the 1970s and 80s, hooliganism made English grounds urban no-go areas and it was all "society's" fault. Only when football realised that it was dying because of this cancer it began to take action, and lo and behold, little by little, the tone changed.
Clubs dealt with the problem on their own doorstep. Policing and stewarding policy improved. Stadiums were rebuilt. Relations between clubs and their supporters were fostered. We all realised it was fun to go to football again. Of course it didn't take long for TV to notice either, the money really started to flow and the game changed more in one decade than in a century.
Bar the odd outbreak, a cancer was eradicated, not by grand design by government or authority but because of change by the stakeholders in the game. So why has it taken so long to wise up to the other great cancer which festered from the 1970s?
In that vicious period, black players were routinely abused. At some clubs the black players of their own team would be cheered while opposing black players had bananas thrown at them. Black players suffered in silence and with great dignity. But back then they were earning industrial wages. Nowadays, they don't feel the need to suffer in silence. TV money has empowered them. They have more muscle and this week they began to flex it. I say that is a good thing.
But it is not simple. Take John Terry. Surely Chelsea cannot allow him to remain as captain. One, he brought disrepute on the club, and two, his actions are judged much further afield, in the USA, in Africa particularly, where Chelsea are trying to build a broad fanbase.
He has been tried and tried again. He is not a racist in the strict sense and he has paid, heavily, for what he has done. This week he lead out Chelsea at Shakhtar Donetsk, while serving a four-match domestic ban, showing support for UEFA's Anti -Racism drive. Hardly the ideal ambassador.
John Terry against Shakhtar Donetsk this week
But please, let's not make John Terry football's answer to Lance Armstrong. He wasn't the first, he won't be the last, and the bigger issue is in the game, at all levels, not with individuals.
If UEFA are remotely serious about this issue they can make a much bigger statement. They can start by banning Serbia, serial offenders, for the grotesque incidents around Danny Rose during England’s Under 21 game two weeks ago.
At Manchester United, Rio Ferdinand enraged his manager, boycotting the Let's Kick It Out T-shirt parade last Saturday, 24 hours after the old Govan trade unionist reminded everyone of the power of solidarity.
It was an embrassment for Alex Ferguson, but rather than "dealing" with Rio, once the blood had cooled, the manager saw the complexity. How can you sanction your (black) player for opting out of an anti-racism protest ? Further, on reflection, the manager saw that Rio's argument is strong.
The black activists led by Rio Ferdinand and Jason Roberts won an important argument but the real struggle is still ahead. The PFA, trying to keep all the brethren together, have issued a six-point plan. The key component : it will be written into players' contracts that abuse is to be considered gross misconduct and therefore a sackable offence. The other points; stronger penalties, a variant of the "Rooney" rule - the NFL initiative to get more black coaches in the game - are well meaning aspirations.
The black activists led by Rio Ferdinand and Jason Roberts won an important argument but the real struggle is still ahead
The next step should come from the FA and Premier League with a directive to referees. Players can be sanctioned for foul and abusive language, a stricture designed to give referees some measure of protection from the abuse they suffer. Referees should be told to send off players for any instance of abuse toward an opponent.
Clubs need to step up their own game too, enforcing the point that is already made on match day, that racist abuse will just not be tolerated any more. Individuals are caught and prosecuted, banned from grounds, and they have to take this responsibility more seriously.
Don't tell me the Premier League is better in this respect than other leagues, that's like saying we now have less hooligansim than other countries. We need to keep moving forward. Otherwise, we will start moving backward again. Trust me, the racists haven't gone away, you know.
And that is why the day is surely coming when a player will do as Mario Balotelli threatened last season, and simply stop playing in the middle of a game, and walk off the field. I will applaud him.