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Monday, June 14, 2021

‘It’s not just about taking the knee but giving people the chance they deserve’

Paul Cleal, who is the equality advisor to the Premier League board, talks to The Indian Express about the road map ahead for football in the United Kingdom.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai |
Updated: August 11, 2020 8:05:51 am
Aston Villa vs Sheffield United, EPL 2020 restart, covid 19 pandemic, black lives matter, players take knee, var glitch, hawkeye glitch, football newsAston Villa and Sheffield United players take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign. (Source: File)

Paul Cleal, who was made Order of British Empire (OBE) for his work in promoting diversity and inclusion, has been appointed the equality advisor to the Premier League board. During his six-month tenure, he will draft an action plan on anti-discrimination policy programmes and BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) progression within the Premier League and its clubs. Cleal talks to The Indian Express about the road map ahead for football in the UK.

What are the main challenges ahead of you?

The obvious one is the lack of representation of minorities at various positions, like we have seen in the Commonwealth Games committees recently. It’s largely true in football too – the majority of people running the sport are white. In the last 40 years, there have been a significant number of footballers but the question emerges why that has not filtered through in coaching and management. There are obvious symptoms that need to be dealt with. Also, some footballers still receive terrible abuse on social-media platforms and occasionally in the stadiums, and we need to work harder in eradicating it. The greater challenge and the opportunity are to get representation right, to have enough minority people running the sport.

Would you be looking at the Rooney Rule?

The Rooney Rule is a National Football League (NFL) policy in the US where teams are required to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior executive operation jobs. There is no hiring quota but an interviewing quota. The Premier League has discussed the Rooney Rule in the past and so far, has decided not to go for it. It’s been used in a limited way in the English Football League (EFL), but has not been quite successful as yet.

For it to be successful, you have to be confident of having good-quality minority candidates in front of decision-makers. If it’s shown that there are good candidates who aren’t given enough opportunities, I think it’s a good case for the Rooney Rule to be used. But it has worked in the NFL in the US where they have had a lot more candidates. One of my jobs would be to see what’s happening on the candidates’ front.

(England and Manchester City player) Raheem Sterling has pointed out that while the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are in high coaching jobs, other England stars like Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole have struggled to land such jobs. “The two who haven’t got the right opportunities are the two black former players,” he said.

Yes, he spoke about lack of representation and the fact that it’s not just about taking the knee but about giving people the chance they deserve. It’s one of the areas I would be looking very closely at. We know the Premier League system seems to favour coaches from outside the UK. There are fewer and fewer jobs for English coaches, irrespective of their ethnicity. We need to really understand why that’s the case. It’s not just about coaching qualifications but leadership qualities also, and we need to explore and understand the issue.

Should the Premier League be celebrating more black players?

Yes, like the US does it. Major League Baseball has a Jackie Robinson Day every April 15 to celebrate the day when Robinson became the first black player in MLB history, opening the doors for other minority players. The problem with the Premier League is that it started only in 1992 but in this regard, one can even arch back to find early pioneers in football in this country. It’s a positive move and it would only be mere tokenism if nothing else like representation in other jobs is done.

A word on LGBT rights and homophobia that exists in the world of football, especially in men’s sports.

The Equality Standard panel covers it to a degree in the Premier League. We are not sure why it’s more prevalent in men. We know that it’s not just a UK issue, it seems to be all over, in France, Germany. We have done a lot of work in the business world, so there is no reason why we can’t do it in football as well. It’s often blamed on the supporters that there would be a negative reaction, but I am not sure whether that’s true anymore.

Paul Cleal was appointed as Equality Advisor to the Premier League Board in July. (Source: PL)

Has the UK genuinely moved away from the infamous Tebbit Test days?

I think we still have a problem with that. I have had similar issues. My father, who died a couple of years ago, was from Cameroon in central Africa and I grew up in London. I didn’t have a problem with the Tebbit Test as England and Cameroon never played each other, but at the (FIFA) World Cup in 1990, all of a sudden, I had to choose. And I always felt I didn’t have to choose. The Tebbit Test requires you to go support the England team but when you try doing that, sometimes you are not made to feel very welcome. It sends a mixed message. I think it’s fine if British Indians support India in cricket rather than England. It’s essentially just which sporting team you support. At one level, you are making a choice between Liverpool and Manchester United. If you have more than one national loyalty, you are entitled to choose either. Society is still evolving and sometimes forces people to choose rather simplistically, but it’s not reasonable. We have many people in the world with dual passports, so I can’t see why you can’t support two football teams. It shouldn’t be a big deal if someone chooses a team based on ancestry over the country we live in (or vice versa). To me, the onus is on the people running (the sport) to be inclusive. If you don’t have people from minority (communities) in sporting bodies, they don’t know how to include the communities in sports. It sends a signal.

Your work is with the Premier League board and its 20 clubs, but will it percolate down to the grassroots?

When it comes to grassroots, you will also have a look at other aspects like referees – we have only white referees in the Premier League for now. My work will focus on the Premier League but there are EFL, the FA, the PFA, the League Managers Association for managers, and various leagues below the Football League – and there is a need for football to speak in one voice on important matters. The Premier League doesn’t work directly with the grassroots but there are a lot of community programmes that they fund, which effectively means the money from the Premier League finds its way down to programmes like Premier League Kicks, Primary Stars. At grassroots also, you have people who are coaching and who are playing and you need to get the representation correct at that level.

Are you genuinely hopeful of making changes to the system?

It’s an advisory role and the board can choose whether to accept my proposals or not. But I am hopeful. The last few months have been a good example of that. The death of George Floyd has brought a great deal of emotion and introspection in terms of race relations. I have seen people angry, sad, down, but also at the same time, people have started to have positive conversations – in business and in government. Conversations that I haven’t seen senior white people have before. That makes me optimistic. I think there is acceptance that institutional and systemic racism exists. I am more positive now about change than I have been for a long time.

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