The language used by Clarke was indeed “unacceptable” – yet away from the chairman’s cringe-inducing comments, the Football Association has been striving to achieve acceptance for all…
By Jon Holmes
“I am deeply saddened that I have offended those diverse communities in football that I and others worked so hard to include.”
So it goes for Greg Clarke as he departs the Football Association after four years as chairman. His closing contribution was a collection of poorly chosen words and phrases uttered publicly which stumbled from the clunky to the casually offensive, followed by an apology and then within hours, his resignation.
His farewell statement, taking full responsibility for the “unacceptable” comments and expressing his regret at disappointing so many people, was unambiguous. If only he had taken as much care when he spoke, he would still be in English football’s top job now.
Reacting before he quit, Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari said the level of laziness in Clarke’s lexicon was “staggering”; Show Racism the Red Card highlighted the “damage” done by the FA chairman’s stereotyping; Women In Football explained how such language “actively excludes people”; while Stonewall urged Clarke to “listen and learn” after using “archaic” vocabulary.
LGBT+ people represent just one of the several diverse communities that Clarke managed to offend during Tuesday’s Zoom call with DCMS select committee MPs. While attempting to underline his support as an ally for any professional footballers in the men’s game who are gay and who might want to come out, he referred to a “life choice” – whether he meant sexuality itself or an individual’s deliberation over whether or not to come out was, at best, unclear.
Perhaps in isolation, Clarke might have been given the benefit of the doubt over his intended meaning; but any suggestion of misfortune was soon disregarded, stacked as it was alongside the carelessness of his additional verbal blunders.
Football v Homophobia, in its statement, expressed the concern over Clarke’s clumsily problematic phrasing well…
There are some people who will use a statement like this from the FA chairman as a way to prop up their homophobia.Lou Englefield, FvH campaign director
Questions about this aspect of discrimination in football had caused difficulty for the FA chairman several times before.
In 2016, and just five weeks into the role, he told MPs at a DCMS committee hearing that he thought it would be “impossible” for a gay Premier League player to come out publicly.
Then, the following May, speaking at Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces Summit, Clarke estimated it would take “a couple of decades” to make men’s football as LGBT-inclusive as the women’s game.
He was criticised not so much for his prognosis but for failing to offer any suggestions on what the FA might do to improve matters. He did say he hoped to meet a gay male professional footballer over a coffee to learn more about the challenges they faced. It was hardly surprising that no such player took him up on his offer.
Later, in October 2017, the psychologist John Amaechi revealed he had been approached by the FA chairman’s office earlier that year to discuss the situation, but that Clarke showed little appetite to take “radical” steps as a senior leader in football due to a perceived amount of risk. Amaechi quoted Clarke as saying: “I’m not getting fucking fired for equality”.
Meanwhile, in contrast to all this chuntering, back at Wembley, the FA’s estimable Equalities team and others in key roles were busy building trust and a greater sense of community.
LGBT History Month receptions at the national stadium – with Clarke delivering speeches – became annual events. Internal employee surveys that reflected the improved understanding around LGBT+ inclusion ensured staff members at HQ and county associations knew they were not alone.
Then, for the first time, the FA marched as a group at Pride in London in 2019, providing important visibility and representation. The pandemic prevented any parades this summer, but the governing body’s spirit of Pride shone through in the virtual space.
Notably for Pride Month 2020, an online panel event brought together England’s Anita Asante, writer Nicky Bandini, Stonewall’s sports campaigns lead Robbie de Santos, FA diversity and inclusion officer Jay Lemonius, and QPR technical director Kevin Ramsey for an in-depth, informative discussion about LGBT+ inclusion in the game, promoted across the FA’s digital and social channels.
Structurally, the commitments made in the governing body’s ‘In Pursuit of Progress’ equality plan seek to bring about a deeper cultural shift – to retain the best of football’s traditions while removing the worst of its ingrained elements. The two-year update released earlier this week suggests significant advances are indeed being made, with the FA Youth Council increasingly influential and more emphasis being placed on the merits of ‘mental fitness’.
The good work being done rarely makes the news, however. It doesn’t earn a snappy, eye-catching headline (and ‘Jurassic Clarke’ was a strong one seen in several of Wednesday’s papers, however obvious it may have been). Yet the FA will keep marching, and taking those meaningful steps – its support for Sports Media LGBT+’s recent open letter, for example, did not go unnoticed in our part of the wider football community.
Now the search begins for a successor as chair, and with respected figures across football actively demonstrating the game’s capacity to drive change, there will be a clamour to appoint someone with fresh ideas and who expresses themselves much more thoughtfully.
As Clarke plods away from Wembley, he can at least look back with pride at the personnel who are putting the right words into the correct actions – those paying close attention to detail under scrutiny, striving to make football more welcoming for not just lesbian, gay, bi and trans people, but ‘For All’.
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