An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Sol Campbell, quotas and institutional isms

Sol Campbell, quotas and institutional isms

Sol Campbell recently claimed that he would have to move abroad to get a management position in football because of the inherent racism in the British game.

Those of you who aren’t sport fans might be tempted to switch off at this point. But stick with it – because it’s a fascinating insight into culture, racism, discrimination (positive and negative), equality and perceptions of institutions.

Sol Campbell was one of the best defenders of his generation.

Sol Campbell was one of the best defenders of his generation.

If you don’t follow football (“association football” or “soccer”) you might not know who Sol Campbell is. He’s a Londoner, and played for a number of Premier League clubs including Tottenham, Arsenal and Portsmouth. He played 73 times for England at full international level and won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups. At his peak, he was one of the top ten defenders in the world (in the opinion of this author), and is almost certainly one of the best English centre backs of the past twenty five years. He was never the best in the world, but he was up there.

Oh. And Sol Campbell is black. This, he claims, is what is stopping him becoming a manager (or, for North Americans, “head coach”) of a Premier League club.

American football, of course, has been accused of such racism before. In 2003, concerned at the lack of ethic minority head coaches, the NFL instituted “the Rooney Rule” which stipulated that, whenever a head coach vacancy appeared, franchises must interview at least one ethnic minority candidate. The 2007 Super Bowl saw two black coaches face off against each other in Tony Dungee and Lovie Smith, with Mike Tomlin also picking up a ring in 2009.

Tony Dungy became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

Tony Dungy became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

This sort of “positive discrimination” has admirers from many quarters. For one, it does not force companies to hire people from minority backgrounds; it simply increases the likelihood that they will be considered. The recruitment firm employed for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games made a commitment to interview any candidate who self-identified as disabled. As a result, the company hired almost double their target of disabled people. Admittedly, this was for part-time and unpaid work. But lessons were learnt, and it was one of the positive aspects of the Olympics for disabled employment rights.

However – quotas for interviewing and for hiring often only go so far. The British state nominally had a quota system for firms employing over 20 people in Britain. Only five firms were ever prosecuted between 1948 and 1995 when the law was in effect. Partly this was because the government handed out exemption notices like confetti. Partly it was because these quotas don’t overcome the fundamental reasons why minorities do not get hired in the first place. Even if we exclude direct prejudice, black people, women, disabled people, etc. are far more likely to have poorer education, less work experience and more breaks in their employment than white, middle class men. This doesn’t just make their CVs look bad in comparison. It means they tend to perform worse in interviews, and have less experience of the “culture” of business. In short – white men find it easier to “fit in” than other groups. Hence, they tend to win out in a competitive job market.

Remploy ran sheltered workshops for disabled people, alongside a government quota scheme. But disabled people still found it difficult to get work in post-war Britain.

Remploy ran sheltered workshops for disabled people, alongside a government quota scheme. But disabled people still found it difficult to get work in post-war Britain.

That’s something that can’t be overcome with quotas. Indeed, it is beginning to bite again in the NFL. In 2006, 22% of head coaches were non-white. Today, it is back down to around 13%. That’s still higher than the 6% in 2002, but it is a significant drop. The issue is that there aren’t enough people in the traditional “gateway” positions. You don’t just hang up your “cleats” (boots, for people who speak the Queen’s English) and then walk into a head coaching role. You might instead go to college football, the “Football League” to the NFL’s “Premier League”. You become a coach at a particular position; then an offensive or defensive co-ordinator; then an assistant coach; and then you might, if you’re good enough, be selected as a head coach. Some stages might be skipped if you’re really that damn good – but most people require that apprenticeship in the lieutenant positions before they can prove themselves worthy of becoming a general.

So where does this leave Sol Campbell? Well, Sol has very little coaching experience. He is still in the process of acquiring his UEFA “A” licence – a formal qualification which coaches are required to hold before they are allowed to manage in the top leagues in Europe. Right now, Campbell couldn’t manage a Premier League club even if a club wanted to hire him. This isn’t because he’s black. It’s because he’s unqualified.

That said, Campbell makes some valid points. Despite the vast numbers of black players at all levels of the game for many decades, black people hold only four management positions amongst the “ninety-two” clubs (the traditional professional game in England incorporating the Premier League and three divisions of the Football League). The number of black coaches in more minor positions is growing, but the profession is still disproportionately dominated by white men. More white guys have “A” licences than black guys. This is a problem which exacerbates the racial imbalance amongst top-level managers.

There are many reasons why. The preference for white people in “skill” positions in sport has long been recognised. Quarter backs, captains, pitchers, even officials – all still dominated by white men. The evidence appears to point to lingering social prejudices. While in the past, white people were thought to be “clever” enough to play those positions (blacks weren’t), today we have the problem that white people are encouraged to strive for positions of power. Black people, for myriad reasons, are not taught to have the same expectations. Born, no doubt, from the bitter experience of past generations. Are, then, enough black people applying themselves to coaching? Or do they simply take orders for their careers and drift off after retirement, never considering a senior coaching position as a legitimate target to pursue?

Campbell – an ex-international and soon-to-be certified coach – should be in a decent position to get a job. Perhaps not a Premier League job; but certainly a job at one of the big clubs in England’s second or third tiers. This would be entirely respectable. Very few coaches get to walk into the really big jobs on their first foray into management unless they were a) one of the best players in the world or b) had such a legacy with one club that they were groomed for the position. Pep Guardiola is not typical.

The problem for black coaches may therefore be part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you judge success by immediate employment in a “big” job, then many demographics fail. Heck, there are only a handful of managers in the Premier League who can be identified as “English”; and most of those had to work their way up. Sam Allardyce (Limerick), Steve Bruce (Sheffield United), Ian Holloway (Bristol Rovers) and Alan Pardew (Reading) all began their careers outside the Premier League. By the same token, if this is given as a reason to not even try – black people won’t succeed, so you won’t succeed if you’re black – then the numbers will continue to be low.

The perception of racism is therefore important. It must be removed if the situation is to improve. More black people need to “get their badges”, and more black footballers need to be encouraged to stay in the game as coaches once they retire from playing. It won’t be quick, but over time the number of coaches will improve; and following that, the number of black assistant coaches will improve; and finally the number of black managers.

However – there is a difference between the population and the individual. And here is why Sol Campbell – the person – may have to go abroad. For Sol Campbell seems to make a point of pissing off everyone wherever he goes. He was abused whenever he returned to play at White Hart Lane after he deliberately let his contract run down so he could join arch-rivals Arsenal on a free transfer. At Arsenal, he let his contract wind down, telling his manager he wanted to move abroad. A few months later, he’d signed a fat contract with Portsmouth. He sued Portsmouth when they were on the verge of bankruptcy, alienating himself from fans who feared losing their club altogether. And he left Notts County after one game after falling out with the (admittedly, it turned out, fictitious) owners of the world’s oldest professional football club.

As a black ex-international, he could get a job in England. As Sol Campbell he might struggle.

However, history shows that Sol Campbell should not be used as the excuse by which to become complacent about the bias against black people in football. Whether Sol Campbell deserves a management job is immaterial. Many black people do, and many are denied those positions through a difficult, nuanced and highly complex mix of attitudes, confidence, history and prejudice. The “Rooney Rule” is not a panacea. Quotas in themselves do not tend to work. Alongside the legal right to an interview, there needs to be a concerted effort by all stakeholders to increase the numbers of black people gaining qualifications, putting themselves forward for coaching positions, and considering candidates on their merits rather than prejudices about their culture or natural ability. The very fact that Campbell feels like he has to move because he’s black (not because he’s Sol Campbell) should raise alarm bells in itself. The white-dominated press cannot dismiss it since they have no and can have no idea what this is like. (And, yes, as you can see from my own skin colour I am well aware of the irony. Check one’s privilege, etc.).

If the disability quota scheme has taught us anything – if the gender pay gap has taught us anything – it’s that laws don’t help in isolation. We also require policies and schemes to bridge to education, qualification and work experience divide that continues to benefit white men. We need investment. Lots of it. And now.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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