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Blog || Business of Inclusion Event

On Monday 1st December 2014, the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre was delighted to host a critical public seminar to take forward the pressing issue of inclusion in football, from grassroots through to the professional game. It is widely acknowledged that football has come a long way in tackling racism over the past twenty years, but how has it fared in widening access to the game for members of the LGB&T communities?

To address this problem, Birkbeck assembled a first class panel of senior executives from football who have direct responsibility at the highest levels to implement the strategies and embody the value that our national game is for everyone regardless of personal characteristics.

First up to the podium was Roisin Wood, Director of Kick it Out, footballs own inclusion campaigning body. Roisin highlighted a number of initiatives that are showing a great deal of promise in making the game a more welcoming place for all minorities. Kick it Out have launched a new mobile phone app that allows fans to report abusive language so that the relevant authorities can investigate and take action where necessary. While there will always be controversy over anonymous reporting, this is an initiative that was requested by fan groups so that they could take some ownership over the problem. Roisin noted that increases in reporting indicated a greater willingness by fans to file reports rather than an increase in abusive incidents. She stressed the importance of self-policing with fans taking the initiative to tackle racist and homophobic language and this offered the best route for making football the sort of welcoming environment that the vast majority of fans want it to be.

A further development of the past two or three years has been the establishment and growth of dedicated LGB&T supporters groups that are integrated into professional clubs’ supporter group structures. Kick it Out are working with the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN) to provide material and other support to groups of LGB&T fans that want to organise into official groups. Kick it Out are helping these groups to buy banners to show their support for their team. In my view these groups are potential game-changers in the ongoing drive to make football an inclusive environment for LGB&T supporters. As the early pioneers of the gay rights movement realised back in the 1970s, visibility is crucial. It comes with risks of course, but those original campaigners knew that there could be no equality in LGB&T rights by staying in the shadows of the basement bar, out of sight from the rest of society. Coming out on the streets and demanding the right to be able to live, work and love just the same as everyone else was the cornerstone to all the progress that has been made since. Of course, visibility is not enough on its own, it needs to be part and parcel of a broad strategy for equality, but it is the essential building block upon which those strategies can be founded.

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Business of Inclusion Event was as part of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre Seminar Series.

In my view LGB&T fan groups have the added advantage of being able to assert the right to enjoy the game free from fear and abuse from inside the game itself. In the past, too much of LGB&T activist criticism has come from external groups with little understanding of, or even interest in, the game. LGB&T supporter groups have a legitimate stake in the game and have the right to have their views listened to and respected along with every other fan. For clubs and other football bodies they can provide advice and guidance on how to keep making football a welcoming place to enjoy the game. A potential avenue for research is to evaluate how other fans react to official and visible LGB&T groups and what role LGB&T groups might play in future inclusion strategies.

Next up to speak was Bobby Barnes, former professional player at West Ham, and now Deputy Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers Association. Bobby was keen the stress the journey that society and football in general, and individuals in particular, had gone on since the 1970s when prime time Saturday evening television felt able to screen shows featuring casual racist, sexist and homophobic ‘jokes’ as a matter of course.  Promoting a vision of a fairer society in which no-one is left behind, and in which people are given second chances, Bobby maintained that often the best people to advocate for LGB&T inclusion are those who have made the journey themselves and have come to realise that discrimination is wrong through their own reflections on the issue. Present day footballers will have gay friends and associates and so it is natural for today’s younger generation to embrace an inclusive culture. However, the PFA recognises that work needs to be done still to raise awareness of improper use of language in the dressing room and bar, and exploiting their unique access to, and relationship with, players, the PFA runs education sessions around these issues. The sessions are well-received and are often just the thing that players need to remind them that discriminatory language is unacceptable.

As I know from my own research, gender and sexuality scholars have long known that in the past homophobic language in male group environments, such as team sports, has been primarily used as a means to police straight sexuality. Homophobic ‘jokes’ are aimed at straight team mates as a means to enforce a strict heterosexual code. However, many studies now show how that code is loosening among the younger generation and that, in many places, to be homophobic is now to be uncool. It is, therefore, not surprising to learn that professional footballers are following this trend, and with PFA education sessions to reinforce the message, it is apparent that there is a reduction in homophobia. It is too early to announce the demise of homophobia in football team cultures but the trend is encouraging and it looks like years of hard work by the PFA and others are paying off.

Following Bobby to the rostrum was Mark Gonnella, Director of Communications at Arsenal FC. Mark emphasised the importance of leadership in promoting the values and actions that the club tries to embody. He noted how Arsene Wenger took the lead in establishing that the only thing that matters in football is the ability and desire of a player to perform at the elite level. Nothing else should get in the way of this essential fact, so that passports, race, sexuality or any other characteristic are unimportant in building a team. For Mark the only thing a team mate cares about is ‘can he play?’ What applies to the first eleven applies throughout the business, where talent and commitment are the key markers of whether to employ someone, promote them and so on. Mark recounted how he was approached by Stewart Selby who wanted to establish a supporters group for LGB&T fans. The club welcomed the idea and the Gay Gooners were born as an official Arsenal supporters’ group that now has over 200 members.

As later questions from the floor established, there was always a gay support at Arsenal, but the essential difference now is that the support is highly visible, well organised, and has the official imprimatur of the club. For Arsenal it is about embodying a set of values that the club wishes to be identified with and to direct its day to day operations. Located in one of the most diverse areas of London and drawing support from across the globe, welcoming diversity is a natural process for Arsenal. Mark recognised the added value a club like Arsenal can bring to an LGB&T inclusion agenda since official club ‘tweets’ and other social media communications have a worldwide reach of tens of millions. Arsenal took a lead role in the 2014 Rainbow Laces campaign, with Arsenal first team stars embracing the idea by featuring in a video of self parody that they owned from the outset. For Mark, the business case for inclusion is simply in doing the right thing, and has nothing to do with bottom line calculations.

Birkbeck assembled a first class panel of senior executives from football

“Birkbeck assembled a first class panel of senior executives from football”

Our last guest speaker was Kelly Simmons MBE, the Director of the National Game and of Women’s Football at the FA. As the game’s governing body the FA is charged with a special responsibility to ensure that football is truly for ‘everyone’ at every level, for all abilities and in all roles. Emphasising that the hard work to integrate inclusion resides in the day to day work that goes on to educate and train coaches, administrators, volunteers, players and the thousands of people who make football happen across the breadth of the country. Kelly reminded us that women’s football is witnessing an exponential growth and that the women’s national team has featured ‘out’ LGB&T players, notably Casey Stoney, who also sits on the PFA Board. The FA is currently organising and running workshops to help football clubs and related organisations to become better at promoting and ensuring LGB&T inclusion. Kelly stressed the importance of partnership working and that the FA had its responsibility to take the lead and establish the culture it wished to see football embrace, but that other organisations, including the Leagues, the PFA , Kick it Out, the clubs, the media and other bodies, all have an important role to play in taking the agenda to the next stage.

Following the presentations there was time to take questions from the floor and the importance of the issue was underlined by the range and quality of interventions from an attentive audience. Some of the key comments included a view that LGB&T inclusion needed to sit alongside other inclusion strands and that diversity had to be seen as a whole game approach. Other speakers argued that football should not be seen as separate from the society in which it is situated and that football has a good story to tell in tackling problems of discrimination head on. There was a lively debate on how clubs and the authorities should treat players and others who are found guilty of racist and homophobic abuse, with some members of the audience claiming that even the new strengthened sanctions put in place by the FA are minimal compared to how someone in a different profession would be disciplined. The panel was keen to stress that match bans were only part of the sanction and that re-education was also imposed on transgressors. Having replaced Bobby Barnes in the round table discussion, PFA Equalities Officer, Simone Pound, was especially keen to stress how much progress was being made at the professional level and the lead role the players’ union was taking to promote the enduring trade union values of equality and diversity.

Concluding remarks from the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre Director, Sean Hamil

Concluding remarks from the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre Director, Mr. Sean Hamil.

Overall, the evening was highly successful. With over 75 people in the audience, many of whom are Birkbeck students who may want to take up management positions in sport, the message from the panel of senior executives was that anyone serious about such a career needs to make sure that they fully understand and buy into the inclusion agenda and appreciate its implications for sport and for the business of sport. From a Birkbeck perspective, the evening opens up possible avenues for research, especially into fan cultures and attitudes, as well as in evaluating the plethora of measures that are being taken to promote inclusion across football at every level.

 

Dr Andy Harvey works at the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre. His PhD research was into the troubled history and cultural clash between male team sports and gay men. He has published numerous articles and his monograph on sport, masculinity and sexuality is due to be published in 2015. He is open to suggestions to research proposals and especially how research in the field can assist practitioners. He can be contacted on andrew.harvey@bbk.ac.uk

Andy’s page on the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre website here
Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyHarvey7

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