John Amaechi: ‘Football doesn’t need new rules’
John Amaechi is not interested in professional sport. “I don’t care about sports because I’ve been in [the business],” he says. “I know that it doesn’t care about anybody. It’s a money-making machine and it’s been pretty good at it for a long time.”
What the psychologist and best-selling author does care about is inclusion and diversity. The former NBA player has emerged as one of the clearest voices in confronting racism. His video for BBC Bitesize last year that explained white privilege went viral. It was aimed at schoolchildren but the clarity of Amaechi’s message resonated with many adults – and provoked a backlash from bigots.
He may have antipathy towards the sporting industry but he recognises that the crowds that follow teams reflect the state of society. When spectators boo players for taking the knee, as they did before England’s 1-0 victory over Austria on Wednesday night, it is a depressing indication of the mood of the nation.
“The reason kneeling is important is because every time we have to have this debate it tells you where we are in the world,” he says. “Where people can argue that taking the knee in 2021 is somehow controversial or disrespectful. It’s not a sign of progress. It’s certainly a sign of regression.”
Amaechi dismisses the idea, put forward by opponents of kneeling, that it is an empty gesture. “Is it important for people with significant influence on huge swathes of the population to make unequivocal statements about their stand for and against issues of public and societal importance? That’s essential,” he says.
“Colin Kaepernick [the San Francisco 49ers quarterback] lost his job for doing it. Anything you can lose your job for doing is not that inconsequential. The NFL talks about being an anti-racist organisation but Colin Kaepernick still has not got a job.”
In English football, kneeling is just one part of a wider attempt to tackle racism and discriminatory behaviour. The social media boycott earlier this year intended to highlight online abuse also aimed to put pressure on the companies whose platforms allow such behaviour. Amaechi is in favour of such protests.
“I don’t follow football but I know a number of footballers who talk to me about things they are planning and doing in the background. For a lot of the individuals who did the social media boycott this was just one performative allyship moment which was underpinned by a lot of other personal activity and influencing.”
When it comes to your team getting impoverishing the game as a whole, then you’ll take action. But when someone’s racist, homophobic, sexist, or just a bully, you do nothing
Despite his lack of interest in the game, the football authorities have in the past contacted Amaechi to pick his brain. His company APS Intelligence offers advice on leadership, strategy and organisational diversity. It was not a fruitful meeting.
“Many people [in the game] think they’ve already talked too much about race and inclusion and say let’s just get back to football and let’s not be political and all that other nonsense. What I’d advise them to do is they’ve already got a set of principles, they’ve got ethical guidelines, they’ve got all kinds of things. They’ve got organisations like Kick It Out and others who could be empowered and actually given some teeth to be able to guide the ethical and moral backbone of the organisation. That’s what I’d do. I’d bring in somebody who knew about ethics and who would ensure that people complied.”
Fifa, and the various ruling bodies under it, come in for criticism from Amaechi. He can recite the world governing organisation’s code of ethics by heart. “You don’t need new rules,” he says. “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person, group of people on the basis of race, skin colour, ethnic or national origin or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion. Those are the Fifa ethics rules. Fifa will reflect the world and communities in which it operates – that includes black people, gay people, working class people, rich people. It includes everybody. You shouldn’t have to do anything as the leader of football other than follow the principles on which you say you are based. Fifa don’t and nobody cares.”
This creates a dilemma for supporters. “When organisations promise me one thing and deliver something else, even if I quite enjoy it, then I have to make choices,” he says. “I either join the organisation on the abandoning of their principles and therefore abandon my principles, or I reject that.
“It doesn’t mean you have to stop being a fan of football or even a fan of a team. But how can you pay money to an organisation like this? What people say is, ‘if I don’t pay somebody else will.’ Yes, that’s true, but they will then be the people paying the organisation that’s abandoned its principles, not you.
“It’s interesting that when the Super League breakaway happened, how quickly did people say they were willing to vote with their wallet then? When it comes to your team getting richer and impoverishing the game as a whole, then you’ll take action. But when someone’s racist, homophobic, sexist, or just a bully, you do nothing. There’s a reckoning here.”
At this point, Amaechi believes, it comes down to personal integrity. “If it matters more to enjoy a Saturday afternoon out than it does to protect the dignity of one of your players, or indeed to make sure that your badge is not stained with the accusation or the actuality of racism or sexism or homophobia, then the bigots have already won.”
This is not about stripping the fun out of the game, he maintains, but opening up the sport.
“Racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia – none of them make football better. I hope people realise this part. This is not about making football anodyne or getting rid of banter.
“If you want football to be the shining beacon, a thing that we can be proud of, then it has to be the kind of place where people aren’t afraid to show up. The fear that people had when they realised the clubs don’t care about anything but money a few weeks back over the Super League? Well there are LGBTQ, black and brown women and girls who feel that fear every day they hear a football kicked.”
Fans were quick to protest against the Super League
It’s clear that Amaechi, who was the first NBA player to come out as gay, takes great joy in the essence of sport, which is its ability to make people feel part of something bigger. As a black, homosexual man he has had more than his share of feeling like an outsider. He is astounded by the stupidity shown by some within the business. “I remember talking to a fairly well-known coach who told me the reason that Asians can’t play football is because they’re soft: they don’t have the right number of fast-twitch muscle fibres,” he said, shaking his head.
“I’ll never forget. It’s incredible to think that we have this level of ignorance within the game. It’s not just about representations. Shouldn’t everyone feel that they belong? The reason I played basketball was not because I thought there was any money in it. I didn’t know anything about the NBA. I showed up at a gym in Chorlton and a bunch of kids allowed me to see my own potential and made me feel I belonged. I never wanted to leave their company.
“That’s what being in a team is about. And through everything that group of people are still there: 35 years later that group of people I met in a gym in Chorlton is still there. That’s what sport is supposed to be about.”
He has little patience with those who argue that things are better today than they were in the past as a way of dismissing concerns. The overt racism of the 1970s and 80s might largely have gone away but the core problem remains. “I don’t know why people do that comparison,” he says. “I’m overweight but I’m losing weight. I do this thing where I put some weight on and look back to six months ago and say, well, I’m not as fat as that.
“It is comparing to a bad example. Stop doing it. I’m not suggesting I should compare to my playing days. I’m never going to have four per cent body fat again. I’m 50. But I can still look to a point and say what’s the best I can do right now.
“Can anybody look at football and say in terms of racist chanting, in terms of the response to homophobia, in terms of the response to women and girls being more involved, that things are as good as they could be? It’s not just monkey chants but black people’s participation in coaching, managing and ownership? Can anybody look at football and say, yeah, this is about as good as it could be? Of course not.”
There is, Amaechi believes, a fundamental dishonesty inherent in the football authorities. “If the game wants to be the flagbearer for society it just has to follow its own core principles and actually sanction people on that basis using its own guidelines. Or just remove the guidelines.
“There’s a west coast American tech company that decided to get rid of their policies on racism and inclusivity. ‘We’re just doing our work,’ they said, ‘that’s what we do’. I completely disagree with that and will never use them. But at least they are saying ‘this is who we are and that’s what we are going to be’ instead of pretending that they are going to be this other thing.
“The reason football won’t do that is because if it said its actual charter, it would probably be something along the lines of this: ‘We like money very much. We like to manipulate people who have to give up their hard-earned cash into believing that they are at the centre of the game but they’re actually not. We want a handful of people with massive influence and political clout to do whatever they want and be supported without question by a crowd of people who follow a badge. We don’t care about anybody and will make any statement that we think we have to in order to survive. The second that fans aren’t important they will not be part of this game.’
“That’s probably a more accurate description of where football is. But if they did that would people still follow?”
The depressing answer is that it’s more than likely supporters would still flock to grounds. “It’s not as if bums on seats is the main driver,” he says. “Television money is the main driver. It just seems odd to me, in the face of some of the history of the way supporters have been treated – Liverpool fans and Hillsborough is the biggest example – that they wouldn’t see an attack on the dignity of any other group of people for what it is. It’s just a circular firing squad. It’s only a question of time before it comes round to you.”
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