Racism turns the beautiful game ugly

Football is once again in the news for the wrong reasons.

Footage from The Guardian of Chelsea fans on the Paris Metro blocking a black man from entering a carriage and chanting

“We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it”

Football has too long been a comfortable place for the spores of racism to multiply.

The sheer pleasure of the game, the sociability, the passing of time marked by adventures together to matches, the shared elation at success, commiseration and post mortems at being robbed: all beautiful. How sad when the bonding turns ugly.

Last year I asked a mate, a gentle giant and long term Spurs fan, about the chants of Yid Army at White Hart Lane. He pointed out the positive origins, a chant of pride in identity.

“Aah it’s great!” he said  “You’re in there with thousands of you, and the chant builds up, and it just takes you over.  You lose yourself in it. It’s a brilliant feeling.”

And that’s just the point. More like going to a Celtic battle than a sporting event. The face paint could be woad.

It’s all too easy for human beings to lose individuality in a crowd. Our inate tribalism takes over: someone looks like me, sounds like me, thinks like me: I feel safe. Let’s keep the others out.

The small-mindedness of small tribes is our biggest threat.

21st century life requires us to belong to many tribes.

Interdependence remains a tough challenge for societies: tolerance needs to work harder, not be taken for granted.

In organisations it may not be as obvious – no chanting or flags – but the strength of groupthink can quickly become prejudice. Unconscious bias influences us all.

Whether it’s around race, social background, gender, sexuality, mental health, our blind spots affect our decisions. Harvard University’s ‘Project Implicit has a great online test: the results may surprise you.

Back to the football. Nice words from Chelsea, that the fans actions have “no place in football or society”.

If racist bullying has no place, show us, don’t just tell us.

Demonstrate a show of tolerance, open up the blind spots.

Let’s hope football fans react with more than a reassuring chuckle or an easy wave away with a hand of anything serious behind it. As a fan said to me on the Jubilee line (I live a few stops below Wembley), the carriage shaking with chanting and stamping, a tone of menace on that day rather than the usual exuberance:

“Ah no, you don’t understand love, it’s just banter.” 

Banter can mean camaraderie. But it can also be the respectable mask for bigotry.

Be wary. 

Do your tribes work well together?

How deep is unconscious bias in your culture? 


Talk to us about a quick litmus test to check.
We help organisations create a sense belonging