Football needs a brand leader to tackle racism

Adam Orban
Football needs a brand leader hero

Football matches have been in the headlines for the wrong reasons: namely racism. When we have big brands tackling other issues head on, for example Unilever and the use of plastics in their products, why don’t we have one that is addressing racism in a way that raises the bar of what’s expected of other brands? Brands could take inspiration from certain footballers that clearly consider it an important issue, and have invested their time in addressing.

Raheem Sterling is a great example. While I find his proficiency in front of goal infuriating as a Manchester United fan, he’s garnered my respect as he’s become a paragon of football professionalism. He has risen above the unfair press coverage he’s received, which is impressive for a young man of 24. For example, the tattoo of an M16 assault rifle on his leg has been branded “sickening” and “totally unacceptable” as a glorification of gun violence, when in fact it’s a homage to his late father who fell victim to gun crime. He’s helping to turn the tide in how black and other ethnic minority football players are represented in the press.

Mohammad Salah is having a similar effect on how Liverpudlians view Muslims. A study that focused on the rates of hate crime, tweets, and a survey of Liverpool F.C. fans showed that since Salah joined Liverpool, hate crimes in the region dropped by 18.9% (vs. a synthetic control), Liverpool F.C. fans halved their number of Islamophobic tweets, and the fan survey shows that these may be driven by an increased awareness and familiarity with Islam.

There's been a 32% increase in discrimination in grass-roots and professional football from 2017-18.

While these two players, amongst others, are clearly helping to change how non-white players are viewed, it’s unfortunate that racism in football is as present now as it has been in recent memory. In recent months, Tammy Abraham (Chelsea) and Paul Pogba (Manchester United) are among a number of high profile footballers have spoken out about receiving racist tweets because their performances were deemed below par. Other players who have spoken out about receiving similar treatment include Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), Troy Deeney (Watford), Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan) Patrice Evra (Manchester United), and Jordi Osei-Tutu (Arsenal Youth Squad) who left the pitch in tears after being insulted in a pre-season friendly.


Most recently, there was the EURO 2020 Qualifying match between Bulgaria and England, where there was monkey chanting, obscene hand gestures, Nazi salutes, and sweatshirts being displayed that perverted UEFA’s “RESPECT” campaign to read “NO RESPECT.” This was a premeditated effort to speak out against the anti-racism campaign. Thankfully, UEFA had another card up their sleeve in their three-step protocol to tackle racist fan behaviour at matches; two steps (an announcement to the stadium, and pausing of the match) took place, with the final step (the match being abandoned) thankfully not needing to be carried out. Yeovil FA cup tie, which was abandoned when Haringey’s manager took his team off the pitch after racist chanting from Yeovil fans.  Two men have since been arrested in relation to the incident, and while this has gone some way to remedy the situation, we should strive to be on the front foot as prevention is better than cure.

There are plenty of initiatives around aimed at tackling the root cause: Kick it out (an anti-racism charity), and UEFA’s RESPECT campaign that uses the #EqualGame hashtag are a couple examples. However, the former cited a 32% increase in discrimination in grass-roots and professional football from 2017-18, so maybe initiatives alone are not enough.

Twitter, Manchester United, and Kick it out met earlier this year to discuss how to tackle racism in football. The cynical might say that it was a combined effect that piqued Twitter’s interest: it was Paul Pogba who received the abuse, one of the most followed footballers on social media in the world, coupled with Phil Neville (England Women’s Football team head coach) saying that footballers should boycott social media in response to the abuse received. A boycott would surely affect Twitter (and likely Instagram’s) bottom line – so does there have to be a threat of fiscal repercussions for companies to take notice?

Being a brand leader

It would feel as though brands reacting to a fiscal threat would be doing too little too late, and do not consider this a topic worthy of their proactive action. I would hope that the current climate would make a brand, who sees this as an issue and one they are genuinely committed to addressing, decide to stand apart from the crowd and become a leader. To lead means to be the first mover, to disrupt the category, and do something more drastic that nobody thought would be possible before. We can look at other brands that have done something similar.

To lead means to be the first mover, to disrupt the category, and do something more drastic that nobody thought would be possible before.

There are multiple examples across categories. Monzo disrupted banking by becoming digital only and not needing any actual branches. Suddenly other banks decided to beef up their smartphone apps considerably. Tesla are all electric, all the time; now several brands have decided to become electric as well (either fully or in part): VW is launching a new electric only range, Jaguar has the E-PACE model as well. It’s worth noting that EU directives are forcing car manufacturers’ hands, which brings another important point in what it takes to become a leader: doing something because you care, not because you are made to care.

There is still the chance for a brand to show that they consider it unacceptable and are willing to do something that goes above and beyond what others are doing, show that they are committed to changing the status quo, and that they’re willing to do this even if the impact might be unpopular. The incident in Bulgaria is both a reminder and opportunity to do just this, but the big question is: who will be the first to step up?