This year’s news coverage of the “Football Black List” has generated polarising responses on social media. And not just because it is unfortunately misnamed – the expression in English suggests exactly the opposite of what is intended, that it’s about illicitly blocking a group of people.
The original idea comes from 2008. The founders wanted to raise the profile of black professionals working in football, to increase their level of representation more widely across the sector but also in particular to highlight role models.
It’s now become mainstream. It’s backed by a number of bodies including the Premier League, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), The Football Association (The FA), English Football League (EFL), and the League Managers’ Association (LMA).
But the rationale is not without controversy. For starters, by definition it is in some measure inherently divisive since it separates one group of players from others, whatever the reason behind it. Such an approach always carries some element of reputational risk, since diversity becomes separated from inclusivity, which is the ultimate objective.
The rationale for the campaign runs as follows: according to the Black Footballers partnership 43% of professional players in the Premier League are Black, and in the EFL the 34% are from Black communities. Despite this level of representation on the pitch in the men’s game there is what’s described as a “worrying lack of representation in decision making positions across all areas of the game”.
That might indeed be true, though it’s impossible to judge without seeing the latest stats set out, sector by sector. It certainly does raise a serious question about representation. But the question is more complex than it first appears. Should a target percentage be representative of player numbers, or the local fan base, or society as a whole? Any campaigner who might take this a step further and argue for quotas, or even simply targets, needs to tackle that question openly and head on.
Those figures incidentally do highlight that football is astonishingly successful in attracting Black players at the highest levels of the sport. Skill is recognised regardless of the player’s race or background. They are also duly rewarded financially for their skills. These are very positive signs.
But given that fact, perhaps it’s time to move away from this type of unintentionally divisive award and to simply be generally inclusive? Perhaps we should recognise such spirit and drive and support for their community, but by all who deliver it?
Otherwise we run an even greater risk – over time accidentally encouraging divisiveness and friction. Other groups and communities may increasingly be encouraged to set up their own campaigns, perhaps even absurdly pushing for quotas on the pitch – which could only harm the FBL campaign. As more lobbies form, there is even the risk of seeing self-appointed spokesmen claiming to represent new microgroups, pushing their own personal political agendas to the fore. Division risks fostering division.
None of this is intended as an attack on the work of the people behind the Football Black List, who not only are keenly trying to contribute to their communities but seem to have dodged many of the controversial political pitfalls that other campaigns over the years have jumped into. Their support for role models is commendable. Perhaps an inevitable focus on players has detracted and distracted from their support for those in management and behind the scenes. But the event does encourage us to challenge our assumptions on whether such campaigns more broadly risk accidentally segregating rather than reinforcing and uniting, and ultimately fail to deliver on their objectives. At what point does exclusivity hinder inclusivity? That surely is a legitimate question to ask.
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