The unique passion football ignites among communities all over the world has made it a truly inclusive and diverse sport. Here in the UK, black players have always been an important part of footballing history, with Arthur Wharton becoming a professional footballer in 1889 and black players like Emma Clarke taking to the field in 1895. No history of football would ever be complete without acknowledging the challenges and unique experiences of black players within the game, and the PFA is proud to have always championed and supported its black members.
In October every year, Black History Month is celebrated in the UK and has traditionally focused on significant events such as the civil rights movement. This type of black history education centres the experiences of black people in the United States, however, things are starting to change, with the focus shifting to Black History closer to home.
Simone Pound, Head of Equality and Diversity at the PFA, is in favour of Black British history taking centre stage. She says, “American black history is different to ours, and though there are similarities, black people in America have been on a different journey. Black British people should embrace our heritage and explore more of our own history, which I think is crucial for our identity”.
Establishing a strong identity comes from having role models from an early age, and football has been an industry where positive black representation is found in abundance - but that wasn’t always the case. Assistant Director of Education at the PFA Oshor Williams spent much of his playing career being the first or only black player at a club, which led to years of feeling like an imposter. “When I played in the northern league, I probably never came across more than 2 or 3 black players in any of the other teams”, Oshor says. When I was signed for Manchester United in 1976, I was the only black player at the club, and the only black player I remember playing against there was Howard Gayle”.
That all began to change when Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, and former PFA Deputy Chief Executive Brendon Batson became household names and role models for aspiring black footballers everywhere. For Oshor, this was a pivotal moment, “You saw people who looked like you aspiring to the same goals and it was fantastic. It made me feel it was possible to be a black professional player”. Each generation since then has built on their success, inspiring more people to go after their dreams and helping them believe that race shouldn’t be a consideration when pursuing a career in football.
Former England Captain Mary Phillip can relate, “I looked up to players like Mark Wright and Ian Rush when I was young, but I used to love watching people like John Barnes, Paul Ince and Ian Wright. It was great to have black role models in football”. That representation goes a long way and for Simone, it delivers real impact. “In many ways, the game leads the way when it comes to showing how diversity works,” she says, “and at the PFA, we’ve always worked hard to reflect our membership and strived to ensure black people are represented in leadership roles”.
This disparity between black players on the field, and black people holding positions of influence in football is something the PFA and other stakeholders in the game are keen to address, and something Oshor also thinks is key. “Last season, 33% of professional players across the leagues were BAME, which is great, but we do not see that translated into representation in the dugouts and the board rooms”, he says. “I’m pleased to be involved in the PFA’s ‘On The Board’ programme, which helps ex-players prepare for senior roles, and we’re now in our seventh year. We’ve seen lots of success stories from people who have been on the programme like Jason Roberts, who is now the CEO of CONCAFF, Les Ferdinand, who is the Sporting Director at QPR and Michael Johnson, who is a coach for England U21s. When we’re talking about equality and diversity, we have to make sure we’re working towards shattering the glass ceiling and working towards proper off the pitch representation”.
Outside of representation, the other major issue for black people in football has always been racism, and fan behaviour at several matches over the last few months has made headline news. The PFA has worked hard to fight racism for decades, and this year launched a specific campaign to highlight the growing problem of online racial abuse over social media. In May, the organisation started a 24-hour social media boycott in solidarity with players who had been subjected to relentless racist abuse from disgruntled fans and trolls alike. The campaign was titled #Enough, and the aim was to show the social media networks that their current safeguarding procedures were insufficient. Fans, players, clubs, and celebrities that got involved were standing together against racial abuse. The boycott reached over 90 million people, opening up crucial talks with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram about how we can all work together to stop this abuse, and make sure those responsible face real offline consequences for their behaviour.
The rise of overt racist behaviour both online and at matches is often attributed to ignorance and a lack of education. It is another reason why the teaching of black history is so vital. Currently, black history is often an afterthought at most schools and doesn’t reflect the rich cultural heritage of black people in Britain. Something which Simone, Mary and Oshor all feel very passionate about.
“For me, containing black history to just one month isn’t enough.”, says Mary. “It should be an everyday thing, taught on a daily basis in the same way we approach other parts of education. It shouldn’t be like Christmas, where it only comes around once a year so that we can talk about the same handful of people again. Black people have been here from the beginning of time and we will be here until the end of days too. Why aren’t we teaching black history universally like we do for European history? From what I’ve seen, black history isn’t taken seriously enough, and I think that’s why racial abuse is on the rise again”.
Simone echoes Mary’s views, “There have been black people in the UK throughout history and their stories need to be reflected in everyday education until it becomes the norm. We can see how much football changed when we started to see role models, and I’m sure there are so many figures from Black British History that deserve celebrating. It would be inspirational to many young people out there – if they knew about them. When I was growing up, outside of my family, my role models were black people I saw on the TV like Trevor McDonald, Moira Stewart and Floella Benjamin, who were pioneers because, at the time not many black people were visible on TV. I looked up to Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, but it would’ve been nice to have other British people to look up to as well. Luckily, young people now have more resources available so they can find out more about their own history. Still, black history education in schools needs to improve so that children of all races can be better informed”.
Oshor also agrees, “I think it’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to be able to understand their own historical roots, and that’s why the teaching of black history in this country is so important. It can be painful, especially when we have the history of the Empire in Britain. Many people still proudly cling to the idea of that, even though it was rooted in a paternalistic culture, painting the Empire as a benevolent entity that ‘lifted’ other countries up. When you look further, you begin to realise there was a sinister side, which negatively impacted millions of people all over the world, and we must all be taught that. It helps us to understand the truth better, and when you exclude black and world history from the curriculum, you deny people the opportunity to learn from our collective past”.
“We know there’s been lots of erasure,” Mary adds, “but it would be nice to know how much of our black history was archived and how much was destroyed. I believe black history deserves more than a month and should be thoroughly taught, because understanding our history is essential if we want the multicultural society we live in to thrive”.
For Oshor, the proper teaching of black history is crucial so that we don’t forget the contributions of those who came before us and can reflect on how far we’ve come. He says, “For me, it’s important to document everything, or we get into that situation where we have forgotten history. When I played at Stockton, people would always tell me I was the first black player there, but they had forgotten about Arthur Wharton, who had played there seventy years before me. I was still proud to be one of the first black players there, and Arthur Wharton also beat me to the punch at Preston North End too, as he had also played there before I joined the club. Looking at the way the press spoke about him was difficult, because they used such racist language. They behaved as if the success of the team was in spite of him, rather than his great goal keeping being part of the reason. People keep saying everything has changed, and I think they have in lots of ways, but when it comes to racism, it’s only the way it manifests itself that’s changed. We still have a long way to go, and acknowledging the importance of black history is a big part of that”.