“I try to remain optimistic that there will be significant changes, but that is with a big dollop of caution because I’ve been talking about this for too long. Authorities need to use this energy to harness change.”
So far in 2020, we have had everything. We’ve had the expected and the unexpected. And we’ve had enough issues to last a life time.
The Covid-19 crisis, the Australian bush fires, the UK flooding, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The crisis will go away eventually, the bush fires have died down, and the floods have gone. But the last in that list, the BLM movement, is not going away.
Brought into the public spotlight following the death of George Floyd earlier this year, the issue of racism and equality has snowballed culminating in protests around the world, marches, stands and taking the knee.
The latter has been the most symbolistic in sport and has been a sign that not just football but society is not prepared to stand up for any form of racism anymore.
Since the football season kicked off again, the knee has been taken at almost every single game by players, no matter what race they are.
It has sent a powerful message, as have the demonstrations around the world.
One man who has experienced racism in Britain first hand is optimistic that the tide may be turning, but is sceptical in the same breath.
Brendon Batson OBE was just nine when he moved to Britain from Grenada with his family.
He experienced racist chanting during his football career, in a time where racial abuse from the terraces was prominent.
It was at West Bromwich Albion, where Batson played between 1978 and 1982 that he would make his biggest mark in a classy Albion side under Ron Atkinson.
Alongside fellow black players Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, the trio were affectionally known as the Three Degrees, but they made an impact off the pitch just as much as they did on it.
Albion were the first side to have three black players in their team, and the trio were pioneers for black footballers at the time and have continued to be looked at with such esteem.
Even after retirement, Batson, who is the only one of the trio still alive today, has worked to try and push racism out of the game.
With players now having a platform on the back of the BLM movement, Batson believes the new energy can be harnessed to move the abuse out of the game.
But after hearing the ‘warm words’ from authorities in over the years without action, he remains sceptical.
“I think in football this movement has been fantastic and has given more players the platform to influence things, but it is always in the hands of the authorities to make real change,” explained the former Albion defender.
“They need to harness the energy the younger players are showing, who have said enough is enough.
“I try to remain optimistic that there will be significant changes, but that is with a big dollop of caution because I’ve been talking about this for too long.
“But there is a general feeling not just in football but in society. I went to a protest and saw the fantastic youngsters, black and white, chanting the same message.
“It is up to those now to harness that to make changes in football, because the sport has a great role to play.
“I hope they will, but I remain cautious because for too long there has been lots of warm words without much action.”
Batson, who is chair of the charitable arm of the PFA believes the resurgence of racism in society, and in football, has stemmed from actions, issues and words that don’t relate to the beautiful game, but to other areas of society.
In recent years were have seen incidents of racism in the Premier League, such as the abuse received by Raheem Sterling in a match at Chelsea and a banana thrown on the pitch at Arsenal towards a black player.
These were scenes more reminiscent of the 70s and 80s, when Batson himself was plying his trade.
The incidents have reared their head again, in football and society and he puts it down to the resurgence of the far right in politics.
“I get more cynical about change. You look at politics across the world and in Europe, there has been a resurgence of the far right and you only have to look at the comments from Trump.
“The most powerful man in the world makes comments and people get emboldened when they see leaders making these comments, they latch onto them thinking if its good enough for him it is good enough for me.
“There were issues around Brexit, which I am not blaming for anything, but there was a resurgence in that campaign of comments about foreigners and this, that and the other.
“The gains that we make in this are painfully slow, and it doesn’t take much to throw it in reverse.
“When you see politicians spouting off that sort of racist message in flowery language, those inclined to have that mentality latch onto it.
“People think football can be the silver bullet for everything, it can’t.
“We also saw it with the Windrush generation. I was part of that and the UK has been good to my family, but we have such a long way to go.
“We see a young, energetic youth now who seem to have come together and said enough is enough, and they want inclusion and equal opportunities in society and that is what keeps me optimistic.”
Players, Batson believes, have the biggest voice they have ever had now, and it is not just black players. He believes the modern footballer is more socially conscious and that can only bode well.
He highlighted the work done by Marcus Rashford on free school meals and Jordan Henderson garnering the support of his peers to get the PFA to pledge £1 million to the NHS during the current crisis.
On the field we have seen an array of talent from all races, nationalities and backgrounds for many years. The Premier League is one of the most diverse leagues in the world when it comes to those who have to kick the ball around for 90 minutes.
But for those who direct the players from the touchline, and those who make the decisions above them, the environment they work in is anything but diverse.
The number of black managers in British football is counted on two hands, the number on boards and committees is of a similar ilk.
Batson, through the PFA moved to try and change that by putting Chris Powell beside Gareth Southgate in the England set up and Michael Johnson in the Under 21 fold.
“Myself and Garth Crooks started this process. Chris was with Gareth Southgate in Bulgaria when the players were being abused, and I know it was a big comfort to the lads to have him there with them.
“There needs to be a visibility of black coaches, so people can see there are opportunities and pathways.
“The FA need to make a bold statement and make the positions of Chris and Michael permanent, but the Premier League, the FA, the EFL all need to look at diversity on gender and ethnicity across their boards and leadership teams.
“Data shows if you have a diverse board you get better results and steps need to be taken because not having diversity is a hinderance.”
It’s Batson’s belief that because young black players who fancy coaching don’t see successful black coaches, they don’t bother, because they think they won’t succeed.
A white player coming to the end of their career is more likely to land a job than a black player according to the former Albion man, and he thinks that is partly down to the media.
“If you look, the media portray the likes of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, John Terry as new managers.
“In my time it was Bryan Robson and Graeme Souness. The only black player touted by the media as a potential manager that I can remember was Paul Ince.
“It is this drip, drip, drip that black players are not good enough to be managers.
“That coupled with the lack of visibility of the right passage for black players. It is a generation thing and it keeps going to the next generation.
“They will say what happened to John Barnes, or Cyrille Regis and then look at their white counterparts getting chances.
“It is up to boards to have the proper recruitment process in place. People don’t like the Rooney Rule here, but that is to make sure employers are getting the best and looking at all backgrounds.
“And also many managers are recycled in all leagues. These managers have experience because they’ve had so many jobs.
“But with the recruitment process how do clubs know they are not getting the best people.”
As Batson has explained throughout his lengthy interview, there is a long, long way to go in this battle.
The current era is a far cry from the chants on the terraces and the objects being thrown onto the pitch. We’ve had incidents, but they aren’t as regular as days gone by.
But the abuse is still there, it is just administered in a different way.
A raft of footballers, the latest being Wilfred Zaha, have revealed the shocking and disgusting racial abuse they have received through social media.
Social media is a fantastic tool, no one can deny that, but it can also be used for these awful purposes, something Batson wants to see changed.
“The social media companies have a part to play. It is though the law makers have not kept up with the times to put things in place to adapt this environment.
“It is about the government being able to legislate in the modern era, but it seems to have slipped by them.
“It was on the terraces before, but now they are welcoming places. All the bile people would spill out in stadiums is done anonymously on social media.
“Players are voicing concerns and it is down to the law makers and the governments to do something.”