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Editorial: Education is the best way to tackle racism at Sunderland AFC

How can we engage those people who are most at risk of being influenced by far-right ideology at football and break the chain of racism that seeks to divide our football community?

Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

To educate is – if we look at the Latin origins of the word – to “lead forth” or “to extract out” the best in a person, and it assumes that everyone has the capacity to gain knowledge and better themselves if given the right resources, guidance and opportunity.

It is this educational spirit that should guide our responses to the, frankly, depressing stories relayed by those who attended the Under 23s game against Newcastle United last Monday.

Groups of young people – lads aged between 14-18 – booed players who decided to take the knee in solidarity with the fight against racism and then proceeded to sing songs in support of a convicted paedophile.

These reports came less than a week after we heard from our writer Kelvin Beattie about a father who led his children in choruses of boos and racial abuse against Manchester United’s Zidane Iqubal during the Papa John’s Trophy match.

Roker Report will not stop writing about this and telling it like it is, as well as challenging directly the myths and misinformation that circulate online regarding the origins and nature of the peaceful act of taking a knee against discrimination.

We will work to actively undermine those within our fanbase – some of whom we know are actively trying to gain a foothold in fan media – who promote racist views online and at the match. We will also champion the causes that seek to bring good people together to support the most vulnerable in our society – military veterans in crisis and refugees fleeing persecution alike.

However, we know that our appeals to rational debate and morality on these pages will only reach a certain demographic, and that the deeply-engrained perception among the section of our fanbase that boos at kick-off is that people like me are “leftie, university-educated do-gooders” who either don’t understand the real world (which is offensive to someone born and raised in this city) or are actively part of a Marxist conspiracy to undermine western civilisation (which is ridiculous).

We also see the comments, on Facebook in particular, that accompany any article we publish challenging racism in general, and how our writing on the issue of footballers choosing to take a knee, in particular, produces a visceral reaction.

I know – because I read, and listen and talk about, and have studied this issue for over two decades as an academic political scientist and a trade unionist – that this is born of pernicious propaganda peddled by the far right, which is lapped up by people seeking simple answers in a time of huge change and uncertainty.

I also know that racism – like anti-racism – is learned within our families and our social groups, and that football is a key location for socialisation, particularly among young working-class men. The far-right has a long history of using the tribal, alcohol-fuelled culture of football to spread their message of fear, hatred and intolerance towards others.

Anti-racists and anti-fascists across the world have sought to counter this through direct action and grassroots campaigning, as well as encouraging the football industry to get its own house in order to protect players in their workplaces and fans who just want to enjoy the game without fear of being exposed to racism from those around them and online.

That’s why I firmly believe that there has to be a way that we can all learn to speak and listen to others to break the cycle of anger and frustration through conversation. There has to be a way to provide answers to difficult questions, and build bridges with those whose words and actions we should seek to understand while we continue to condemn. We need a space that engages and welcomes, educates, and enlightens those who’ve started off down this path.

At an official club level, we understand from the notes of the recent Structured Dialogue meeting with fan groups that Sunderland AFC will be looking to work towards the Premier League’s Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Standards.

Yet, despite the very welcome statement condemning the booing of players who have chosen to take the knee, confusion persists around the reasons for the range of different positions taken by the different squads at the clubs. The women and the men's U23 regularly join with their opponents in this simple gesture but the men’s senior squad have chosen not to join them. Who made these decisions and why is still a mystery, but the message it sends out to fans and the wider football community is not a positive one.

This lack of clarity was crystallised at 3pm on Saturday at the Stadium of Light, when the whistle blew and Sunderland kicked off but the opposition were in the middle of taking a knee. When Charlton realised that our players had not joined them, one player rushed on to foul Luke O’Nien – and, ludicrously, a free kick was awarded to Sunderland.

The referee had undoubtedly lost control of the game before kick-off, but a clearly communicated, united stance by the whole club would go a long way to avoiding such confusion in the future.

Sunderland AFC can, should, and I trust will do more and say more on this issue. It was really good to see the club’s anti-racism video fronted by local schoolchildren playing on the big screens before the game on Saturday too. But there was nothing from the players to show solidarity with the black footballers who face abuse online and from the stands

The wonderful people who make up the heart of our football community across this region have always stepped up to the plate on this issue. Fantastic initiatives like the football tournament organised this week by the local charity Young Asian Voices (YAV) are vital tools for breaking down barriers and creating connections between kids from different backgrounds in the city. As the winner of the Best Young Player, Aeyan Sharif of Millfield, told the paper this weekend:

This is excellent. But there still has to be more from the top - from the FA and professional groups - to push racism out of the sport. YAV takes a really proactive approach to tackling racism in every shape it takes. I’m really happy with the work they’ve done.

Club legend Gary Bennett, who has long fronted anti-racism initiatives alongside Sunderland AFC, was at the tournament held at Ford Football Hub, which was won by the side from Sunderland Scholars, and he told the Sunderland Echo:

The key thing is education - events like these are all about educating young people, bringing them together and hopefully encouraging them to take that message on board and pass it on.

This kind of thing is a shining light in the darkness – it shows that young people from all backgrounds have a place in the game and a home at Sunderland AFC. But it may not reach those who are already be engaging in the behaviour we want to kick out of football, those who perpetrate and propagate racism in the game.

That is a much harder nut to crack, and to achieve this goal I fear we need to be even more creative.

I have committed to working with others in my role as an editor here at Roker Report, in my capacity within the trade union learning movement, and as a coopted rep with Red & White Army, to join the dots and link people and organisations together as best I can.

Through my job with UNISON I have spoken with my colleagues at the PFA about creating educational initiatives that reach out and try to prevent the problem at its source, and we’ve started to think about ways in which those most at risk of engaging in abuse might be directly engaged.

I will also speak to the Football Supporters Association and anti-racism charities with expertise in this field to learn from them about best practices elsewhere, but I don’t yet have a clear idea of what any new on-the-ground initiative might look like at Sunderland. I do, however, think it should involve talking directly with the young people who are at most risk of being drawn into the far-right on home and away match day.

It should involve hearing their views, listening to what motivates their concerns, educating them about what anti-racism is (and is not) about, and letting them hear the stories of those who are most impacted by racism at football – football fans and players of colour, and others in their community who are subject to discrimination and prejudice.

I’d love to hear from other fans who have any ideas or experience in this field, and I’m convinced that together, as a football community, we can make a long-term commitment to making our game a better and more inclusive environment for fans and footballers alike.

Sunderland v Burnley - Premier League - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

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