Beyond institutional racism: White supremacy in English professional football


The following is an edited extract from: Lawrence, S. (2017) ‘A Critical Race Theory analysis of the English Premier League: Confronting the declining significance of ‘race’ and racism myth’. In R. Elliott (ed.) The English Premier League: A socio-cultural analysis. London: Routledge.

As another football season comes to a close, the issue of racism in football is once more overshadowed by show piece finales and the customary staining of silverware with champagne by ‘big name’ players and celebrity managers. At this time of year the dearth of black people occupying football terraces and managerial roles and the scarcity of British South Asian professional players is, at best, reduced into a pennant or, at worst, are far from the minds of many involved in football. Nonetheless, while the mainstream media will now turn its attention to feeding the rumour mill or to reporting mega-money transfers, this piece will take an unconventional approach to satisfying the ravishing appetite of football fans, during an international competition-free summer, by asking them to consider the ongoing issue of racism in English football.

Over the years, a number of critical social commentators have consistently argued that colour-based racism in football is more than just a nasty but necessary tactic, designed to put an opponent off their game. In so doing, these voices have helped shift the focus away from individuals and have instead marked entire cultures attached to elite level, professional male football as arenas laden with barriers that affect different ethnic groups in unique and often covert ways. By focusing on the outcomes of policy processes and recruitment procedures (institutional factors), as opposed to individual actions or words they have demonstrated that the under representation of certain groups in football cannot be the result of one act, one person, one set of supporters, one chief executive, one chairperson, one governing body, over one career. The paucity of Black managers and British South Asian players in the English Premier League (EPL) can only be explained with reference to a series of racialised historical, institutional, cultural, geographical, political, economic and social shifts that have impacted, framed and shaped the current footballing milieu.

In light of this I argue it is about time we move away from the terms ‘race’ and racism and find different and more radical ways to understand and challenge racialised hierarchies in sport. One way of achieving this is to acknowledge current elite level footballing structures, policies and cultures as CRT scholars would, as acts of white male supremacy.  By using the term white male supremacy I am referring to “a comprehensive condition whereby the interests and perceptions of white [male] subjects are continually placed centre stage and assumed as ‘normal’” (Gillborn, 2006: 318).  Such an approach is useful here because it helps provide an obverse view of racism(s), which, in turn, allows us to explore the day-to-day privileging of white, male, European social and cultural norms, in elite footballing contexts, how they are used as resources and how they are protected and institutionalised. Dan Burdsey (2011: 52-53) explains, using player recruitment practices as the context:

… there are … clearly a number of privileges that are accrued from being White, which provide players with a better position from the start: being considered worth scouting in the first place; being presumed to have a supportive family background; being seen as possessing the right physicality and temperament and lacking ‘cultural baggage’; being perceived to ‘know the game’; and, crucially, not having been forced to play the game under the threat of [racially motivated] abuse and violence.

Acknowledging this allows us to go beyond traditional anti-racist approaches in football by naming certain beliefs as key enablers of cultural and institutional forms of racism. Thus, not only does an exploration of white male supremacy go beyond the outlawing of far-right or fascist ideologies from in and around stadia (as did the antiracist movements before and during the early 1990s), it also asks anti-racists – including left-leaning, progressives and liberals – to account for how it is they, too, are complicit in the perpetuation of racialised hierarchies, both in and beyond stadia.

Colin King, in one of the pioneering explorations of whiteness in elite male football, explains that “in order to belong [in football, black players] have to behave like white players, or at least act on ‘their’ terms”. In this way, black players are judged both on their athletic abilities and on “the quality of their relationships with their white male counterparts”. This performance of whiteness (or the act of playing the “white working-class man” as King prefers) becomes resource; one that affords black players sufficient cultural and social capital to negotiate acceptance amongst chiefly white male playing staffs. Working in these spaces thus coerces minoritised players to exhibit a necessary cultural artistry by way of learning techniques of inclusion through language, behaviour and even appearance. Applying this same logic, the reluctance of some South Asian sportspeople to endorse white, working-class masculinities as the cultural norm – not to mention the refusal of scouting networks even to consider predominately South Asian leagues as repositories of talent – inevitably leads to fewer opportunities for British South Asian men to progress. Exclusion in this sense has very little, if anything, to do with a coach or manager disliking a player because of their ‘race’, ethnicity or religion; rather, it speaks more to how players – regardless of ethnicity – perform and/ or construct identities around pre-existing and often invisible (to those invested in performing whiteness, at least) racialised codes and behaviours.

Unlike their South Asian counterparts, Black players have fashioned a space within elite football playing cultures but their transition to football management and coaching has been more arduous. A testimony from Ex-England international John Barnes is useful to expand this point. Barnes, a black man, has suggested his inability to find work as a manager, despite being one of the most celebrated footballers of his generation, is “because there’s a certain perception of who can make a good manager”. Barnes infers that the pseudo-science of biological ‘race’, which dictates black men have especially athletic bodies but possess them at the expense of more refined cognitive abilities, still endures covertly in many predominantly, if not exclusively, white boardrooms, as well as and football newsrooms across Europe. Indeed, bio-racism has been evident in numerous forms in recent times: ex-EPL manager and current LMA member and Sky Sports pundit Dave Bassett ‘explained’ how South Asian men were disadvantaged in the pursuit of becoming a professional footballer by “the Asian build” and “nutrition”; England legend, Bobby Robson questioned the cognitive abilities and temperament of “coloured players” ; ex-EPL manager Ron Atkinson pigeonholed black players as “lazy” and “thick”; and one need only listen to BBC’s football coverage to hear the terms “strong and powerful” systematically overused when referring to black players.

While it is popular to dismiss bio-racism as antiquated or anomalous, I contend it is better to understand such actions as racial microaggressions or as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously” (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000: 60).  Importantly then, microaggrssions are vital in maintaining and reproducing white male supremacy in football insofar as while they may seem harmless  the power to shape people’s experience of the world is found in the cumulative effect of a lifetime of microaggressions which results in low self-esteem and confidence. Microaggrssions, whether they present as a racist ‘joke’, bio-racism, ethnic stereotyping or an event dinner that fails to cater for an ethnically diverse guest list, litter the individual career paths of black British and South Asian men. The energy expended on overcoming these obstacles, sometimes unconsciously, inevitably hampers a person’s ability to move forward at the same pace as those who do not encounter such racialised barriers.

Another explanation that helps us understand the domination of white men in most decision making positions of the EPL is the notion of ‘social cloning’. This term describes how people in positions of power recruit and surround themselves with others who share similar worldviews, who engage in comparable social and ethnic rituals or who, at the very least, are reluctant to challenge the commonplaceness (and thus supremacy of) certain cultural norms. Social cloning then is a strategically important enabler of white male supremacy in football in the sense it is a technology that oversees the reproduction and institutionalisation of white male privileges and cultural norms. Therefore, should these privileges and norms come under threat dominant individuals and groups move to protect the ascendancy of such valuable resources. The case of ex-Cardiff City manager Malky MacKay and ex-Crystal Palace sporting director Iain Moody, is able to add context to such an assertion.

During a number of text message exchanges, which were subsequently leaked and made public, the two aforementioned white men shared a swath of racist, sexist and homophobic comments to one another about colleagues in the football industry, while in post at an EPL club.  When the news broke, MacKay proclaimed via a League Managers Association statement that the text messages in question – wherein he referred to South Koreans as “Fkn chinkys”, expressed concern about the lack of “white faces” amongst a list of potential signings and exclaimed how there was “[n]othing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers” – were intended as “friendly text message banter”. The statement read:

These were two text messages sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter … The LMA does not condone in any way any potential breach of equal opportunities laws but would also point out that out of over 10,000 text messages and 70,000 documents … it may not be a complete surprise that some inappropriate comments can sometimes be made by employees.

At best the LMA’s statement is poorly worded. But at worst it legitimises MacKay’s and Moody’s actions insofar as the statement attempts to reframe racism and homophobia as perfectly jocular and jovial forms of “banter”. In light of such a denial of severity, and given the sharing of such views did not come as a “complete surprise”, the LMA’s willingness to trivialise what had been communicated, concurrent to their impassivity and apathy, signals a worrying familiarity with such exchanges.  That is, such ignorance from a supposedly representative body, which provoked a number of black members to threaten to withdraw their membership, can only emerge from a social sphere that either on some level condones MacKay’s behaviour, is numb to such bigotry due to overexposure or fails to understand ‘banter’ as the archetypal Trojan horse: hate and prejudice parading as comedy.

Not only should the closing of ranks demonstrated by MacKay and LMA be read as an attempt to trivialise racism and thus reaffirm white male supremacy, it must also be seen, more seriously, as a refusal to set a precedent. This refusal, however, was not without patronage.

First, Mackay received support and a job offer from Wigan Athletic FC chairman, Dave Whelan, who appointed him as first team manager, despite an ongoing FA investigation into the offending text messages. Whelan would go on to evidence the instrumentalism of social cloning in elite football yet further when, while explaining his decision to appoint Mackay, he claimed there was “nothing” improper about referring to Chinese as “chinks” and that “Jewish people chase money more than everybody else”.

Second, and perhaps most significantly, after a yearlong enquiry, despite the strength of evidence against the Mackay and Moody, including a confession from Mackay, because the messages were deemed “private”, the FA ruled against taking any further action . The sanctioning body for football in England, no less, itself an organisation governed nearly entirely by white men, thus refused to stand against such obvious bigotry on the grounds that “the communications were sent with a legitimate expectation of privacy”. Faced with evidence that supports the notion racism in elite level sporting spaces now often operates overtly in private but manifests publicly covertly, the FA refused to act proportionately. Furthermore, not only did such a verdict reinforce the notion race-hate speech is only punishable if it is employed in face-to-face public forums, the FA went further and sought council from “external law enforcement agencies” because of “serious concerns about the circumstances in which particular evidence … had been given” (ibid.). The implication here is that Cardiff City FC had gathered the incriminating communications unlawfully, and so, what the FA had concluded, after following its own internal judicial procedures, was that the exposure of two powerful, wealthy, white men’s bigotry, was not only simply unworthy of reprisal but potentially a criminal act!

If the Mackay, Moody and Whelan examples used above are representative of even a small minority of highly-influential people in football and their attitudes towards ‘race’ equality, much harsher and more drastic actions are required. As the EPL moves yet further toward an even wealthier financial state, off of the back of the most recent £5.2 billion TV rights deal, some of this investment must be spent on strengthening the EPL’s moral economy. It must lead the footballing world in more than simply transfer fees. Nonetheless, few initiatives have considered or challenged directly the instrumentalism of white privilege and/ or white supremacy in wider society, never mind football. Perhaps, in the spirit of optimism, anti-racism campaigners might be well advised to seriously consider campaigns that encourage more hard-hitting taglines such as “check your privilege” or “no to white supremacy”. Draping such slogans around EPL stadia would not only send out a harder-hitting message about their commitment to promoting inclusion in football but would also go some way to challenging unsavoury attitudes in football stadia and beyond.

Read the full version of this piece in the book: The English Premier League: A socio-cultural analysis.


Burdsey, D. (2011). Applying a CRT lens to sport in the UK: The case of professional football. In K. Hylton, A. Pilkington, P. Warmington, & S. Housee (Eds.), Atlantic Crossings: International Dialogues on Critical Race Theory (pp. 39-60). Birmingham: University of Birmingham.

Gillborn, D. (2005). Education policy as an act of white supremacy: Whiteness, critical race theory and education reform. Journal of Education Policy, 20(4), 485-505.

Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69(1/2), 60-73.


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