The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
June 12, 2012

Racism in Football: Lincoln Allison goes against the sociological consensus to argue that sport in Britain has ameliorated not exacerbated racism

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Leading academic expert on sport Lincoln Allison argues that - for all the foul racism seen at grounds in the past - football in Britain has been a powerful force against racism.

The Manager of the England football team resigns because he is not allowed to have the captain he wants because his choice has been accused of racism. A cultural war breaks out between Liverpool and Manchester over the word negro (supposedly) said by a Uruguayan and a Frenchman's refused handshake. My, we have become precious and proper, haven't we? The only author who could have captured the true flavour of this politics of rude words and handshakes would have been the great, embittered Dean of Dublin, Jonathan Swift, and he's well dead.

My mind goes back to an incident in a football match a little over twenty years ago. My team, Burnley, twice Champions of England, had fallen on hard times and were doing badly in the Fourth Division. The players lacked quality and conviction. Except for two: a hard-working utility player called Roger Eli and a speedy forward called Johnny Francis. Both were Afro-English, the third and fourth black players to represent the club. (One must remember that we had had a chairman who wouldn't employ "them" at any price.) Eli appeared in defence and did some sort of last-ditch clearance which saved Burnley from conceding a goal. The old man standing next to me said, "Yon blackie is't ownly one wi any guts". He said it with the air of one who had recognised a truth that was both amazing and undeniable.

If someone supports your cause and they do it loyally and well it is very difficult to maintain any kind of racial hatred or contempt towards them. The most effective mechanism for eroding prejudice is surely the experience of other people and the acquired knowledge that they can be decent and intelligent and humorous – or not - in the same proportions as your own kind.

It seemed to me that sport, especially football, was a special case of this and that for many people, especially boys, their first affection and respect for a black person would come through sport. My adolescent heroes were Jimmy McIlroy, who is white, and Pele, Mohammed Ali and Gary Sobers, who aren't. Roger Eli is attributed by almost everyone who has written about Burnley Football Club as having a very special cult hero status as the one who turned it round in our darkest days. Thus football, I always argued, had an integrative effect and is the opposite of hip-hop which tends to emphasise the grievances and separateness of young black men.

In the days of Eli and Francis monkey noises and banana throwing were common. So were:

X is a nigger
X and Y were bought from the zoo
And the witty second verse:
X and Y were found up a tree
I interviewed both players about their experiences of racism. There was no disagreement and they reported as follows:

Teammates: Never.

Fans of their own team: Never.

Fans of their opponents: Always and virulent.

Opponents: Frequently, but usually good-humoured. John Francis recalls saying to an opposition defender after half an hour,

Are you feeling OK? I’ve been running past you for thirty minutes and you haven't once said I was a black bastard.
Managers and coaches: Not a majority, but a significant minority. This was the only thing that upset them, hurtful and menacing, real racial harassment with no opportunity for redress.

The idea that sport has been generally good for race relations is an orthodox one among politicians and sportspersons. I think it is right, but agreeing with it let me in for some fairly vitriolic criticism in the academic world.

Among left-wing sociologists the alternative orthodoxy was that sport at best had no effect on perceptions of race and that it probably did damage in most cases by reinforcing racial stereotypes. This was borrowed from an American thesis that professional sports merely confirmed an image of black physicality. It is to be found, for example, in my friend John Hoberman's book

Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race
which was published in 1997. But I have never thought that the thesis, if true, transfers to our entirely different sporting culture.

American sport is about specialisation and physical superlatives; cricket and football are about character. When you saw Roger Eli, a man of average height and build - though (obviously) of above average athletic ability - showing his qualities of leadership and his never-say-die attitude you admired him as a person. The same was true when you saw Clive Lloyd showing supreme judgement as a top-order batsman and a captain at cricket; he was, after all, occupying the roles previously reserved for officers and gentlemen.

The American thesis argued that racism is buried deep in the culture because it was a legacy of slavery and slavery was a defining experience of American identity. In Britain the supposed defining experience was Empire. But the alternative thesis I would suggest is that the English racism I have described, for all its appalling vitriol, was actually very superficial and part of a system of banter. After all, our sense of identity is not essentially tied to race as it is in many cultures. Banter isn't usually nice and certainly isn't always harmless, but for the most part the best response is not to take trivial things seriously. (As I write Tottenham fans are asking - in song - "What's it like to shag a sheep?" of Stevenage fans just because they don’t live in London.)

I think Eli and Francis's accounts of what they experienced supports my argument as does the virtual disappearance of racist expressions from English stadia. I admired the players of the Eli and Francis generation with their cool contempt for abuse. Who looks stupid now, them or the white racists? I am less impressed by a thin-skinned younger generation. By analogy we have moved from the heroic era in which Christianity fought to survive and to establish itself on to an era of holier-than-thou and debates about the correct number of angels to fit on the head of a pin.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas, also available as a Kindle download from and from

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

This seems generally quite a good article, but:

The headline in today’s Sun is Racist trolls target the two Ashleys (on Twitter).

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 26, 2012 11:43 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement