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Colourful pitches, white benches

by: Leo Aquina | 10 September 2020

The Dutch national team is the very picture of diversity. In the fight against racism in football players emphasise that the team unites different colours and backgrounds. Yet during the recent matches against Poland Italy all of the national team’s coaches were white. And this in turn is the very picture of global football. Colourful on the pitch, white on the bench. Like in almost every type of sport. Jacco van Sterkenburg has been studying racism in sports for almost twenty years, and recently he and several international colleagues published a book on the phenomenon: ‘Race’, Ethnicity and Racism in Sports Coaching. He believes these are often unintentional processes: ‘Racism is often considered to be deliberate but most of the time it is not.’


The key question asked by Jacco van Sterkenburg and his co-authors Steven Bradbury and Jim Lusted is: ‘What part does ethnicity play in sports coaching?’ A 2016 report by Van Sterkenburg and Rens Peeters, for instance, showed that the majority of coaches is whiter than the players. Of the total of 477 players in the premier league included in their study, 40 percent (190 players) had a migration background. Of the trainers and assistant-trainers only five percent came from ethnic minorities. Among the executives this percentage was even lower, at just two percent. The disparities are persistent. With these figures in hand, Van Sterkenburg and his colleagues interviewed the parties concerned to find out more about the reasons.

Networks and stereotypes
‘We see that for ethnic minority groups it is harder to move on from playing to coaching, even if they have the necessary qualifications’, Van Sterkenburg comments. ‘One of the reasons mentioned by the coaches we interviewed is that coaches are frequently appointed via informal networks, and not so much because of their qualities. Those networks are usually white, which means the coaches are too.’ Another reason is the prevailing image of black players, an image often confirmed by how the predominantly white media speak and write about black players. This, too, is a subject of Van Sterkenburg’s research.

‘Only few black players become coaches, and role models are few and far between. You could call it institutional racism’

‘Many people think in stereotypes. This is even more common among football fans than in the media. Black players are usually thought of as good athletes, physically strong and fast. White players are regarded as tactically strong. This hinders black players who want to become coaches’, Van Sterkenburg explains. ‘Although often unintentional, those networks and stereotypes have a huge impact. Only few black players become coaches, and role models are few and far between. You could call it institutional racism.’

Institutional racism is not eradicated overnight. Van Sterkenburg: ‘Different types of measures are necessary, and it is a long-winded process. It is not enough to fight explicit racism, like the chanting of FC Den Bosch fans at Excelsior’s forward Ahmad Mendes Moreira last year. Obviously, that, too, has to be confronted, but it takes more. You have to get to the roots of racism.’

BoekJacco-1Rooney rule
One such measure that could be effective is the so-called Rooney Rule. Van Sterkenburg: ‘It is a rule introduced in American football in 2003, named after Dan Rooney who at the time was the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the chair of the NFL’s diversity committee. The Rooney Rule requires clubs to always interview ethnic-minority candidates for coaching vacancies. They do not have to hire that candidate, but they have to invite them. It is a way to break the network.’

The Rooney Rule proved effective. In the NFL a significantly higher number of ethnic-minority coaches were hired. ‘But the effect is on the wane now’, Van Sterkenburg says. ‘Before clubs got fined if they did not stick to the rule, but as rules get more flexible, clubs increasingly fail to apply the rule.’ Van Sterkenburg is convinced that the Rooney Rule is a powerful one: ‘You should apply the rule not just to head coaches, but to the next layer as well, as that is the training ground for the top positions.’

No leadership measures in action plan
In February, KNVB presented a set of measures against racism in football under the title ‘Ons voetbal is van iedereen’ ('Football is for all of us'). Minister Wouter Koolmees (Social Affairs) earmarked 14 million Euros over a three-year period to intensify the detection and punishment of racism. Is it enough? Van Sterkenburg: ‘Where the prevention and sanctioning of explicit racism is concerned, I think the mix of measures taken is quite good. Still, I was surprised at the action plan’s failure to address the lack of diversity in coaching and leadership in football. It is recognised and they are working on it, but the action plan does not contain any specific measures.’

‘In the end, what you need is awareness. You can lay down all the rules you want, but if the mindset does not change, there is little point in the long run’

Change the mindset
With ‘Race’, Ethnicity and Racism in Sports Coaching Van Sterkenburg and his co-authors primarily wanted to write an academic book, but the book also contains recommendations for policy measures: ‘We wanted to highlight the problem and hope that policy makers take note of our recommendations. An important measure is the Rooney Rule. I know that KNVB’s anti-racism committee, chaired by Humberto Tan, has included the rule in its recommendations, and that KNVB takes it seriously.’

‘In detailing those recommendations, it is important to consider the international knowledge already available, and international experience already gained. Another important point is to take measures at different levels, and to try and understand at what levels stereotyping makes itself felt. For instance, how do young people experience stereotypes, and how do they affect individuals, as well as organisations. In the end, what you need is awareness. You can lay down all the rules you want, but if the mindset does not change, there is little point in the long run.’

For more information: 'Race', Ethnicity and Racism in Sports Coaching

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