Rio Ferdinand’s refusal to wear a Kick It Out t-shirt while warming up for Manchester United’s game against Stoke this weekend has garnered predictable responses, some of them curious. Alex Ferguson had announced before the game that all his players would be wearing the t-shirts in response to Jason Roberts refusing to do so for Reading’s game against Liverpool, commenting that he didn’t think Kick It Out had been strong enough in the fight against racism with reference to the events of the past year. Both John Terry and Luis Suarez have been publicly supported by their clubs both before and after being found guilty by the FA of racially abusing opponents. A number of players including Ferdinand’s brother Anton,the victim of the Terry incident, also refused to don the t-shirts before the QPR-Everton match.
Both the PFA’s Gordon Taylor and ex-player Viv Anderson were critical of Ferdinand’s stance. Taylor made the point that Ferdinand was misguided in aiming his displeasure at the campaign, which as a pressure group rather than a governing body has no authority to impose solutions. Anderson felt that players have a duty to show a united front, and that Ferdinand should have expressed his reservations through the PFA, who back the campaign. He also stated that Ferdinand’s manager should be able to expect his players to do as they are told on such matters.
Ferguson clearly agrees with Anderson. Before the game he’d said in reference to Roberts that unless all players showed their support, it sent out the wrong message. Then in a post-match interview he claimed to have been embarrassed by Ferdinand, and that the matter would be dealt with. Indeed, several newspapers have claimed that Ferdinand is set to be fined £220,000, though that figure seems plucked out of the air deliberately to match the FA’s fine of Terry so as to help frame the story in terms of equivalent fines for unequal misdeeds.
There are a number of issues here. The first is the rights of the individual. I may be doing a disservice to him, but I’d never considered Tony Pulis to be a natural defender of liberal values. Yet he was one of the few pointing out that the players are perfectly free to make their own decisions on whether to take part. If they don’t feel able to support something which on face value is so clearly worthwhile then something has to be wrong with it. It’s also worth remembering that a campaign which attempts to display a common moral response among players is worth precisely nothing if their participation is compulsory, enforced by club sanction.
Arsene Wenger made the excellent point that if black players desert Kick It Out the campaign will cease to be credible. The players involved appear to feel that the campaign’s credibility has already been damaged, laudable though its aims are. When clubs back their employees in such cases in the face of convincing evidence against them, when their colleagues back them with their own public t-shirt display of solidarity, and the FA impose punishment on them which fails to give the message that their actions will not be tolerated, perhaps disquiet towards the campaign can better be understood. This isn’t of course the fault of the campaign itself, it’s that the reality doesn’t match the principle of it.
The effect of the solidarity of everyone wearing anti-racism t-shirts becomes one of insincerity and posturing, when some of those involved are the unapologetic protagonists of the past year. By wearing the t-shirts they are projecting a wish to remove racism from football, while being unwilling to remove racist abuse from their own speech. That’s not solidarity, it’s brushing the issue under the carpet.