The Sunday Conversation
9:33 am
Sun July 13, 2014

Soccer's Racism Problem In Need Of Follow-Through

Originally published on Sun July 13, 2014 9:32 pm

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

The 2014 World Cup winds down Sunday after a month of competition in which FIFA tried to emphasize unity and multiculturalism. The "Say No to Racism" slogan has been promoted on banners and in commercials.

Even so, the games were marred by several incidents, including racist chants at games involving Russia and Croatia, and German fans showing up to a game against Ghana wearing black face.

Jason Roberts recently retired from professional soccer after 20 years. Roberts, who has played for the Grenada national team and for Reading in the U.K., says he's happy with the progress he's seen in the soccer community, but tells NPR's Arun Rath there is still a long way to go.

"FIFA have their hands full with this issue," Roberts says. He adds, "Yes, they've spoken about some of the things they'd like to do, but it hasn't really been followed through with sanctions of the level that many people would like."

Roberts was born London, but his mother was from French Guiana and his father from Grenada. He grew up in a sports family, and one of his uncles was one of the first black players to play for England, he says.

Roberts recalls one of the first times he experienced racism in the sport, accompanying his uncle to the locker room as a boy. One of the other men told his uncle, "Go and get the tea, that's what we brought you to this country for."

"I couldn't understand what he meant; I was only 9," Roberts says.

Roberts joined his first soccer team in his early teens. On the field, he would hear parents from the other team saying things about him. He says he had many white friends and didn't have any issues until one incident with a friend's father. The dad was taking them home, and during an argument, he called Roberts a racial slur.

"I realized that no matter how good I was at football, how friendly we were, for some people there will always be that line, that no matter what happens, 'You're black, I'm white, and so I'm better than you,' " he says.

Traveling around the country playing soccer, Roberts says, he received various racial abuses depending on the town. He heard monkey chants and inappropriate remarks from other players, managers and coaches. His way of dealing with it, he says, was sometimes to try to ignore it, and other times to play harder against those who were insulting him.

"It adds a whole other level to what you're trying to do on the football pitch as a young man trying to play football," he says. "Now you're a young black man playing football, and you're very, very aware of that."

Roberts says that when people are passionate about a sport, as they are in soccer, they tend to act differently.

"I'm sure many of these people are quite civilized, normal, right-minded people in their normal lives," he says. "But they get to the game and they sing songs and they say things that they couldn't justify [otherwise] — or maybe they can."

Today, things are getting better, and most clubs now take a firm stance on racial abuse, he says. But there is still systemic work to be done.

"In terms of the policies and procedures, when you look at the statistics happening in football with 1 in 3 black players and no black managers out of 92 football clubs, there is obviously a problem," he says. "Now the argument is what's to be done about that?"

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JASON ROBERTS: When people come to the match, and you're playing, that's my workplace. When I'm out on football pitch, this is my workplace. So if someone's acting in that manner, I would like them removed from the ground and banned for life, if need be.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

That's Jason Roberts, who recently retired from professional soccer. He played for 20 years for the Grenada national team and for Reading in the U.K. The 2014 World Cup winds down today after a month of competition in which FIFA tried to emphasize unity and multiculturalism. If you've been watching, you may have noticed the Say No To Racism slogan promoted on banners and in commercials. But even so, the games were marred by several incidents - racist chants at games involving Russia and Croatia, German fans showing up at a game against Ghana wearing blackface. Jason Roberts says he's happy with the progress he's seen in the soccer community, but there's still a long way to go. Jason Roberts is our Sunday conversation.

ROBERTS: FIFA have their hands full with this issue because when you're looking at the way people act around the world in terms of race discrimination, it's something right across the board. And, yes, they've spoken about some of the things they'd like to do. But it hasn't really been followed through with sanctions of the level that many people would like.

RATH: I want to talk a bit about your experiences. First off, to give our listeners a bit of background, you know, aside from the fact that you're a professional footballer - former professional player. You retired not too long ago. You're British, yourself. But tell me about your ethnic background.

ROBERTS: Well, I was born in Northwest London, a place called Stonebridge Estate. It was heavily populated by Afro-Caribbean people and Irish people. My mother is from French Guiana, South America. My fathers from Grenada in the West Indies. I had a fantastic childhood. I grew up loving sport. My family are a very, very sporting family. My uncle Cyrille Regis was one of the first black players to play for England. My uncle David Regis also played in the premier league, the top league in our country. My uncle Otis Roberts played in Europe and he ended up in Hong Kong. John Regis, a cousin of mine, ran the 200 meters for England. And my sister actually had a scholarship at Texas A&M University doing the triple jump. So I was very fortunate that I came from a very, very sporting family.

RATH: And did they - you know, your family who were, it sounds like, often the first people of color playing on some of these teams and in some of these places, did they tell you about was like being being those pioneers?

ROBERTS: Without a doubt. My uncle Cyrille represented a new wave of young people coming through playing football. He made his debut in the top division at 20 years old - a young man in the early '70s when there wasn't much black players playing, when there were lots of issues on the street, lots of violence. And he came through and made a lot of people proud, certainly, from the black community and certainly from the wider community as well. But with that came lots of abuse. My uncle, when he was given the opportunity to play for England, had a bullet pull through the post and had lots of abuse on the pitch and off the pitch.

RATH: It sounds like, the way you described your childhood where you were growing up, it didn't seem that intolerant. When did you first encounter racism?

ROBERTS: Well, actually there wasn't much of an issue until I started to play football - or even around football was where really came in. My first experience of a changing room was walking in with my uncle, and he sat down. And one of the guys said, go and get the tea. That's what we brought you to this country for. And I couldn't understand what he meant. I was only 9. At 13, 14, I joined my first team. And on the pitch, you'd get it from parents of the other side. I had a lot of white friends, and it was never really an issue until one time a friend of mine, his father was giving us a lift home, and we had a bit of an argument. And he called me a - I forget the term - but it was black something. And I realized that no matter how good I was at football, how friendly we were, for some people, there'll always be that line. No matter what happens, you're black, I'm white, so I'm better than you.

RATH: I know myself, to be blunt about it, there are sometimes in England that are more racist than others. What was your experience like as you travelled around the country playing?

ROBERTS: There was many occasions where I received racial abuse. Some of them, you knew it was going to come. Some of them were a surprise. You have to find a way to deal with it, and I found a way to deal with it at a young age - was sometimes you try to ignore it; sometimes you try and score a goal; sometimes to exact my own retribution on whoever it was who was talking to me in that manner. And it just adds an extra...

RATH: By your play, you mean?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. By making sure I was as physical as I could be, sometimes within the laws and sometimes outside of the laws of the game. And it adds a whole other level to what you're trying to do on the football pitch as a young man trying to play football. But now you're a young black man trying to play football, and you're very, very aware of that.

RATH: I don't want to get too fixated on the nasty details of this, but what were the kind of things that you would hear? What was the kind of abuse that would be hurled you?

ROBERTS: Well, I mean, during my playing career, I've had monkey chants; I've had other players use racial slurs against me. But also as a young man coming up through the game, you'd have managers and coaches who would say things - inappropriate things. And as a youngster, you're just trying to make your way in the game. Who's going to be the one to stand up and say, you shouldn't be saying, or say, you know, that makes me feel uncomfortable? That's a very, very hard thing to do when you think that this man has your footballing career in his hands.

RATH: With the team overall, when you'd be in situations where you'd have some of these horrible things yelled or chanted at you, would you talk about it as a team? Or would you all kind of ignore it? How would it affect you?

ROBERTS: It would affect you in different ways every single time. Teammates deal with it in different ways. Some teams or some dressing rooms will rally round you. Some managers will rally round you. Some managers will think, look, can we just get on with the football? And you understand that, but at the same time, some things are bigger than football.

RATH: You know, this type of behavior, it's hard to imagine it just about anywhere in civilized society. Why is this present in soccer games?

ROBERTS: With any sport, football especially, people are hugely passionate. And I think when people get into a mob mentality, whether that be around sport or in any circles, they tend to act a little bit different. I'm sure many of these people are quite civilized, normal, right-minded people in their normal lives. But they get to the game, and they sing songs. And they say things that they couldn't justify if they were sitting there in the front of you - or maybe they can.

RATH: These incidents that we've heard about, they're revolting. But at the same time, people would say, you know, you can't judge society based on, you know, the behavior of a crowd at a soccer game. At the same time, though, what do you think this says about racism more broadly?

ROBERTS: Well, it's really interesting taking this conversation from your perspective in America where you guys have - the argument is being won around the fact that if there is an issue, you need to put policies and procedures in place. Training is not enough. In football, and in American football, I know you guys have the Rooney Rule.

RATH: That's the rule that requires when there's a head coach opening, that requires the owners to interview candidates of a minority background.

ROBERTS: That's correct, and I believe that has changed the landscape in your football. It went from 6 percent to 22 percent between 2003 and 2006. Now, those are the kind of numbers - that's the kind of change that we need in England, right across society. You look at the way fans have to behave in the ground, and most clubs, they have a very, very tough stance on this. And if you're caught racially abusing anyone, they will hit you very hard. But in terms of the policies and procedures, when you look at the statistics happening in football with 1 in 3 black players and no black managers out of 92 football clubs, there is obviously a problem. Now, the argument is, what's to be done about that?

RATH: Jason Roberts is a former professional soccer player and a frequent sports contributor to the BBC. He's also the founder of the Jason Roberts Foundation, which provides education and sporting opportunities for kids in the U.K. and Grenada. Jason, thank you. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

RATH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.