Football is a funny old game. On one hand, the powers that be are pushing hard to ensure that racism and any abuse related to a player's ethnicity or the colour of their skin is eradicated for good. On the other, it seems to do very little about protecting match officials from abuse by the players, coaches and fans alike which seems now to have reached epidemic proportions.
In England the FA has launched its Respect campaign which is designed to set a code of conduct for everyone involved in the game of football from the grassroots up to the dizzy heights of the Premier League as to how they should behave in order to create a positive and rewarding atmosphere. Alongside Respect, there is also now the Football For All and Show Racism a Red Card campaigns that go into greater detail about the role that the nation's number one sport should play in creating an inclusive society.
These are lofty goals and over the past couple of weeks off the back of the unfortunate scenes in Bulgaria, they seem to have gained added momentum helped in no small part by the conduct of England's players on that fateful night and the comments of their manager thereafter. We need to get our own house in order before criticizing others, was very much the message from Gareth Southgate after that match. While you are unlikely to see Nazi salutes or hear monkey noises aimed at black players in this country, racism is still very much present in the game and requires a concerted and real effort to be stamped out.
How realistic is that target though given that football is still a sport where abuse of the referee, gamesmanship by the players in order to subvert the laws of the game and a general disregard for the code of ethics set out in some of the campaigns mentioned above is commonplace?
At every Premier League match now there is a message prior to kick-off asking that fans report any form of racist abuse they witness while at the ground and that one incidence of racism is one too many. The announcement is rightfully greeted by hand-clapping and head-nodding. However, within moments of the kick-off, the entire dynamic will change. Instead of respect and civility, we see players surrounding the referee, arguing the toss over every single decision while the fans in the stands chant that he or she is a wanker. Does that sound like the kind of environment where inclusivity is likely to thrive?
If the FA or football's governing bodies around the world are truly hoping to create an egalitarian game then they must take steps to ensure that respect of the officials is sacrosanct. Seeing the world's top players pushing a hard anti-racism message while still engaging in open abuse of referees is akin to the below proclamation in Orwell's Animal Farm...
So what's the solution? In my opinion, this is one area where video technology should be utilized in order to hold players accountable for their actions. Time and time again we see players gesturing at, arguing with and surrounding on mass the referee with no repercussions whatsoever. VAR continues to get battered from pillar to post and on many occasions for good reason but surely here is an obvious use for it to right some of the wrongs that have been going on for far too long in the sport. Afterall we use CCTV to capture forms of abuse in the stands and take action to remove the offenders from the ground so why not use the same technology to help punish those carrying it out on the pitch?
Besides the fact that by protecting and supporting referees we might actually see better decision making on the pitch, we'd also be much more likely to create an environment within football that is conducive towards genuine respect for all players, fans and officials regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. The great social thinker J.S. Mill wrote extensively about character formation and the development of behaviour (Ethology as he termed it) as being routed in the conditions in which an individual exists. I am sure that he would agree that for football to make genuine progress on the racism problem it will need to fundamentally re-think the toxic relationship between players and officials that has been allowed to fester for too long.