Anti-racism t-shirts are NOT the only solution to tackling racism in football.

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By Jason Webber - Campaign Coordinator, Wales

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Raheem Sterling criticised the wearing of anti-racism t-shirts, arguing that, “wearing t-shirts (anti-racism) is not enough to combat racism.” 

When these criticisms occur, I often feel that they are a personal attack on organisations like Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out, particularly towards myself as the lead on the Month of Action in Wales, which involves players warming up in anti-racism t-shirts.

But here’s the thing, we have never said that the wearing of anti-racism t-shirts is the only solution to challenging racism in football. The match actions and t-shirts are part of a wider solution of challenging racism in football that has education at its core. It provides a platform to raise awareness of the ongoing issues of racism and inequality in the game. This ensures that the subject is at the forefront of people’s minds and not just solely limited to the days following a high profile racist incident.

Raheem made some valid points during the interview, particularly on alternative ways to deal with racism in football. However, he is not the first player to criticise the wearing of anti-racism t-shirts and may not be the last. 

In the past, other players have taken a stance against the wearing of t-shirts, with little in return of alternative solutions or action.

Just last season, following a range of incidents in the English Football League, Reading players refused to wear anti-racism t-shirts in their warm-up during two successive matches, that were supposed to be dedicated matches as part of Kick It Out’s 25th year anniversary. Though the club did show their support throughout the stadium.

It is not the first time that players have boycotted wearing anti-racism t-shirts, which particularly came to light back in 2012. Following the lengthy process of John Terry’s disciplinary case (from his abuse of Anton Ferdinand) a number of players, led by former Reading player Jason Roberts, refused to participate in dedicated match actions after citing frustration by what was perceived as a lack of action over racism.

There was some criticism of this boycott, which included then Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson who stated that “Everyone should be united, all the players in the country wearing the warm-up tops”. Former Liverpool player John Barnes urged unhappy black players to aim their protest at the FA. He stated at the time. “They are targeting the wrong people.”

At the time, Lord Ouseley (Chair of Kick It Out) highlighted an important point that I believe still rings true today. He said that “players must direct their frustrations to decision makers such as the FA’s & authorities who hold the power to enforce disciplinary action and bring about change.”

While players should not be forced to wear a t-shirt, the issue is clearly more about the obvious unanimous feeling amongst players of a lack of progress in challenging racism within the game, more importantly, the inconsistency of charges and the minuscule amount of fines often imposed.

The authorities have to give a higher priority to tackling racism and do more themselves to take ownership of the issue. If tackling racism in football is solely left to organisations like Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out, an increased level of funding is integral to making real progress. As it currently stands, together we are operating within the confines of such a small amount of financial backing (and therefore limited capacity) that we are only just scratching the surface of the problem. 

Targeting organisations who are working tirelessly, while operating within these limitations is not the solution. The Premier League has welcomed the opportunity to speak to Raheem Sterling and other players about developing ideas to combat racism, which would be a positive and productive solution. By players taking the lead on holding the authorities to account and working together on real actions, further progress can be made.

I believe that education is the key solution.  With a higher priority focus from authorities and increased capacity leading to more projects that educate the football family, our impact can reach far and wide at all levels of the game.

T-shirt campaigns such as the action matches do have a place within the solution, although more pro-active educational programmes that challenge misconceptions and stereotypical attitudes, together with consistent and meaningful sanctions are the key to success.

It is thanks to the bravery of figures like Raheem Sterling that momentum has shifted in recent times. The coming season will hopefully see real action and progress made in our fight against racism in the beautiful game.