Rooney Rule not the perfect panacea

The solution to football’s racial inequality? gives his verdict on the Rooney Rule

Action Images/ Tony O'Brien

Action Images/ Tony O’Brien

Success to football, irrespective of class or creed.

Those were the words spoken in a toast to football, following the first game played under the Football Association’s new rules back in 1864; football was to be an inclusive game, designed for everyone, played by everyone, to be enjoyed by everyone.

And yet, modern football’s foibles have been broadcast for all to see recently. From the gross incompetence and corruption of the Blatter regime at FIFA, to the financial crisis engulfing the game at every level, it’s a grim time for football and its disciples.

One area of debate recently has been with regards to introducing the ‘Rooney Rule’. No, I’m not talking about the mass introduction of hair transplants for Scouse England strikers. This is a serious effort being explored in an attempt to increase the ethnic diversity of managers within English football.

Straight away, I’ll lay out where I’m at; I think it’s important to start off by saying that I am a white male that comes from an area with an overwhelmingly white, middle class demographic. But the Rooney Rule is just another idea, in a long line of hare-brained ideas, aimed at papering over football’s increasingly widening cracks. Over the coming few paragraphs, I’ll try to explain, probably clumsily, my opposition to its implementation.

Recently, Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, accused football clubs of a “hidden racism” in not employing black managers. The stats suggest that Taylor could have a point – just 4 of the 92 Premier League & Football League clubs are managed by black men.

The Rooney Rule was implemented in America just over a decade ago to rectify a shameful lack of African-American coaches in the NFL. It states that all NFL teams must interview a certain number of candidates from ethnic minorities when they are employing a head coach. Those clubs are not under any obligation to give those candidates the job – the NFL doesn’t have a ‘Black coach quota’ so to speak – but they are required to interview them.

From a purely statistical viewpoint, the rule has worked in America. By 2006, 22% of all coaches in the NFL were black, up from 6% a few years previously. Currently, 12.5% of head coaches are African-American, which is just a fraction higher than the proportion of the American population of this ethnicity, which is 12.4%. But stats aren’t the be-all-and-end-all. Has the Rooney Rule changed cultural attitudes? Who knows?

Statistics can be used to prove almost anything – but they’re cold, detached from the often emotive social context which they concern; and ultimately, they can be twisted to suit particular ends.

Those four black managers in the English game – Chris Powell at Huddersfield Town, Fabio Liverani at Leyton Orient, Keith Curle at Carlisle United and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at Burton Albion – represent 4.35% of managers in the Football League. The current black population of the United Kingdom is around 3%, so the stats suggest there’s no problem in the game: in percentage terms, the population of black managers in the game is above the average black population of the United Kingdom.

But stats can hide the extent of the issue at stake. More than a quarter of players in England are black, yet that figure off a cliff-edge when it comes to management. This alone demonstrates that there is most definitely a problem in football; not in black players getting into playing the game, but in progressing onto management.

Another problem with the Rooney Rule is that just because it is deemed to have ‘worked’ in America (and I’d dispute whether it has at all), doesn’t mean that it will work in Britain. On a sociological level, British society is fundamentally different to American society.

I’m wary of the History student in me coming out a bit here, but America is much more deeply divided along racial, ethnic and religious lines than Britain; for starters, the black population of America is significantly bigger as a proportion of the whole population. In implementing the Rooney Rule here, we’re in danger of trying to put square pegs into round holes.

Through its implementation, football would essentially be advocating positive discrimination, which to be blunt, is bollocks. There’s no such thing as ‘positive’ discrimination; discrimination is discrimination, full stop. To ‘positively’ discriminate in favour of one group, you must by definition negatively discriminate against others.

I was pretty sure we lived in a relatively progressive society in Britain; one where racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc. are all condemned by the vast majority of people. Things like the Kick It Out Campaign have spent decades effortlessly trying to stamp racism out of football. Do we really want to undo all of that by incorporating a system which draws distinctions along racial lines into the rulebooks of the game?

Rooney threatens the progress football has made since its darkest days in the 1970s and 80s, by introducing an element of doubt into the game. Surely, at the interview stage – which is all the rule requires – black candidates will forever wonder whether they’re only there to fill quotas, even though they may well be there on merit.

If he or she succeeds in getting the job, that doubt will be maintained. “Did I get the job because I deserved it, or because I’m black?” would be the question forever asked. That’s not okay. It’s regressive, and we should avoid it like the plague. And what happens if no black managers apply for a particular job? Is the club in question expected to drag someone in off the street to keep the FA jobsworths happy?

Using quotas doesn’t get to the root of the problem; it only masks it. It’s easy to slap a cheap roll of woodchip on a wall, but it doesn’t mean that the plaster behind it isn’t crumbling away. Rooney might allow football to tick boxes by artificially increasing the number of black managers in the game, but it doesn’t necessarily change attitudes; what we need instead is a much more deep-rooted culture change.

A survey undertaken a few years ago revealed that 56% of people think that racism exists in football boardrooms. Dave Whelan’s recent misguided comments about Jews and Chinese people has opened that debate wide open again. Whether Whelan’s remarks were racist isn’t for me to say, but it certainly didn’t help the image of the game. All of this causes us to lose focus on how to fix football. Every black manager is watched like a hawk, and when they are sacked – even if they’ve performed poorly – accusations of racism fly around left, right and centre.

There are only 92 managerial jobs in the Football League. Each of those clubs has squads of at least 25 players. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that becoming a manager in the League is a competitive business, and lots are going to miss out. The result of that is that managers with coaching badges are viewed more favourably than those without – and this is a crucial point. It’s not the ‘4 out of 92’ statistic that we should be looking at. If black players find doing their badges to be futile, if they think they’ll inevitably be wasting their time, then that’s the culture we have to work hard to change. Not some half-arsed statistics that anyone can blurt out.

The approach from some high-profile figures actually working in the game, rather than sitting in a TV studio, is fascinating. Kieron Dyer and Titus Bramble are both coaches at Ipswich Town. Bramble labelled the Rooney Rule as a “disgrace”. Dyer is quoted as saying “I don’t want to be interviewed because it’s filling a quota.” Interestingly, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the black Dutch legend who recently became manager of Burton Albion, told the BBC “I wouldn’t want to be interviewed for a job just because of the Rooney Rule.” You can’t really argue with that, can you?

All of this serves to show why Rooney wouldn’t work in England. It’s a horrifically crude way of superficially increasing ethnic diversity. Lumping all black players together and stereotyping them as a homogenous group won’t solve a thing, because it’s far too generalised. What about players from different backgrounds? Asian players and managers, for example, are almost non-existent in this country.

The lack of ex-players going on to do their coaching badges isn’t something unique to the BME community. There are just 203 coaches with a full UEFA Pro License in England. That’s compared to 2,140 in Spain and 1,000+ in Germany – and needless to say that they’re exponentially more expensive in England. It’s an endemic problem within the game, which football has to face. We need to change football culture, at the roots, to ensure that players of all creeds feel welcome in management roles, and earn their qualifications safe in the knowledge that they stand a fair chance of being employed, and not just because of some rule that football clubs have been forced to swallow. The first rung on that ladder is making those all-important coaching badges more accessible to all.

Football has changed unrecognisably in the last few decades. Players from all backgrounds play side-by-side, making it one of this country’s most cosmopolitan industries. High-profile characters including TV chef Delia Smith, and the Conservative Party peer, Baroness Karren Brady, have begun to fly the flag for women in the boardroom. The rise of foreign chairmen including Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov and Sheikh Mansour have increased the ethnic diversity of the football ‘business’.

Despite this, football remains a hegemonic male sport, ran by men, for men. It’s still an elite sport, dictated by the rich. There’s still far too many cases of racism on the field of play. Shamefully, Robbie Rogers remains the only living gay player to have played in the Football League – and he only came out after leaving England. (Rogers left the English game because he felt that it was impossible to be both gay and a footballer here; he later re-signed for LA Galaxy, where he still plays, and is more comfortable. It’s a moot point, but it only serves to reinforce that British and American society aren’t necessarily compatible.)

And, most pertinent to the question of black managers, there’s evidence to suggest that black players are thought of as athletes, not ‘thinkers’, placing them at a disadvantage for management roles. All of this at a time when the FA Chairman admits that the governing body of our game is overwhelmingly male, white, and middle class. While that remains the case, no amount of legislation will alter deeply-ingrained prejudices.

So, it’s crystal clear: football culture has to change, and it has to change from within – a process which will take time. Imposing the Rooney Rule isn’t an answer to that. It’s not the elixir which will solve football’s problems, but a short-term solution which masks the real intolerances behind.

It’s about time football culture evolved for the Twenty-First Century. I’ll finish with the same words with which I started, because that’s the lost land which football’s custodians must find again.

Success to football, irrespective of class or creed.