Racism row: Protesting players need to be clear in their message

No-one in British football believes racism has any place in the game. Beyond that, after another week of controversy and mounting anger, very little else is clear.

Was the decision of Rio Ferdinand, Joleon Lescott, Jason Roberts and 32 other Premier League players not to wear Kick It Out T-shirts at the weekend justified? Did they all do it for the same reasons? Do those reasons stand up to examination? And has any of it promoted the cause intended?

While, for many, there is something both depressing and paradoxical in making a protest about racism by refusing to participate in an anti-racism campaign, so far only Reading striker Roberts has made his motives public.

His explanation was erudite, personal and clear. For the others, in lieu of anything but the occasional tweet, we are left to speculate over the exact grievances and the subsequent change demanded.

Ferdinand joins Roberts' protest

Perhaps the initial gesture was by itself enough. Ferdinand, the highest profile player not to wear the shirt, has ensured - deliberately or otherwise - that the campaign has received far more coverage. In conversation with his club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United defender has argued his case with sufficient eloquence for the old martinet to soften his own initial stance.

"I have listened to the conviction of Rio and I think it is quite compelling," he said.

Without any other public statements, the rest of us are left to guess. If, as many believe, Ferdinand and others are protesting against both the leniency of John Terry's four-match ban for abusing Anton Ferdinand, Rio's younger brother, and at how long it took the Football Association to impose the punishment, they will find sympathy with people both inside and outside the game.

If there is anger at Terry's stated defence in court and tribunal - that he was only repeating an offensive phrase that Anton had first said to him - or at Chelsea for keeping him on as club captain, then again they will probably not be alone.

The problem is, we don't know. For a protest to carry weight, it must have a clearly defined message and an equally sharp objective. It must also be aimed in the right direction.

Rio Ferdinand has every right to believe that British football should do more to combat racism. Whether Kick It Out should take the brunt of his wrath is another matter.

Kick It Out had no jurisdiction over the Terry case, either in the criminal or sporting courts. It has no power to impose fines or to ban players. It is also a small organisation - seven staff, an annual budget of just £450,000 - whose mandate is limited to informing, educating and raising awareness.

Despite its limited funds, it has played a substantial role in tackling racism in football, with its chairman Lord Ouseley and trustees like Paul Elliott and Garth Crooks devoting their time for free in its cause.

Roberts refused to wear a T-shirt because he felt Kick It Out should be doing more. He also believes its funding - the FA, Premier League and Professional Footballers' Association all contribute £115,000 a year - means it cannot be sufficiently independent.

Ouseley would dispute that vehemently. We don't know if Ferdinand, Lescott and the others feel the same way. If they do, are they making their point in the right way?

Kick It Out facts

  • Kick Racism Out Of Football began in 1993
  • It became the more wide ranging anti-discrimination body Kick It Out in 1997
  • Its first Kick It Out week of action was held in 2001
  • In season 2010-11 the organisation had an annual budget of £453,913
  • Of that, £330,000 came from the Football Association, the Premier League and the Professional Footballers' Association
  • It employs seven staff

There may be starker ways to express their thoughts. If it is the FA that they believe is at fault, would they consider not wearing the England shirt? And if they did that, would that not play into the hands of those they are trying to combat?

The Premier League's donation to Kick It Out is equivalent to 0.01% of its annual TV earnings. If that isn't enough, or if the Premier League needs to take a firmer stand, could the players boycott their next club match in protest? If it is the PFA, should they use their membership of that union to formalise a campaign of their own?

Kick It Out's budget pales in comparison with a Premier League player's annual wages. If its independence or clout is a concern, wouldn't a direct contribution - as lots of employees do to a preferred charity from their payroll - go a little way to helping?

There are also other campaigns to get behind. Show Racism the Red Card uses the profile of footballers to educate young people about racism, working with more than 50,000 young people last year.

"Without the support of players, our positive anti-racism message is diminished," says campaigner and former West Ham and Fulham player Leroy Rosenior.

Players have every right to demand further action, different action, stiffer punishments for those found guilty of racism. Unfortunately, by refusing to make those feelings clear, it appears unhappily similar to protesting against famine by refusing to run the Sport Relief Mile.

The distressing scenes witnessed last week when England played Serbia in an Under-21 game were another reminder that racism in European football remains a genuine and unacceptable problem.

Uefa's commitment to fighting those issues can also be questioned. When you fine Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner £80,000 for showing his underpants during a game at Euro 2012 but a club, Porto, only £16,000 after their fans racially abused Manchester City's Mario Balotelli, you convince no-one of your purpose.

Whether refusing to wear an anti-racism T-shirt helps change those attitudes is debatable. Two of Uefa's key sponsors for its showcase Champions League are Heineken and Ford. Protesting, as a high-profile public figure and role model, to those PR-conscious multinationals about the organisation they help bankroll would appear a more direct route of demonstration.

What stands out now about the debate in Britain is its focus. This is no longer about racism directed by supporters in the stands at players on the pitch, as it was in the days when Paul Canoville, Chelsea's first ever black player, came on for his debut to vile, vitriolic abuse from his own club's fans.

Instead, the high-profile cases of the last year - Terry's behaviour to Anton Ferdinand, Luis Suarez's to Patrice Evra - are player on player.

"I struggle with the racist issue in football because as a player I don't see it," says former England goalkeeper David James, at 42 the longest-serving black player still active in the game.

"That's not because I've got my head in the sand. In the earlier days, yes, but the game's changed. It is not what it was. I don't believe it is any more racist than society is."

Are there still racists in society? Yes. Do some of them watch football? Yes. Does football allow them to express their deeply unpleasant views? Thankfully, almost overwhelmingly, no.

That does not mean the battle has been won. Neither does it mean players should not fight for more to be done, by clubs, administrators and their own team-mates.

Equally, that fight must have a focus. It must carry a message and it must also carry clout.