Tayyiba from The Grassroots Post sat down with former Middlesbrough and Republic of Ireland defender, and patron of the charity Show Racism the Red Card, Curtis Fleming, to discuss their work, his experiences of racism in football and what can be done to combat this stain on the game and society.
Tayyiba: Tell us about Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC)
Curtis Fleming: SRtRC is an educational charity and its purpose is to tackle racism. We provide anti-racism workshops and help children, teachers and also workplaces to understand the effects of racism and what they can do to address it. It’s been around for twenty-five years now and since its establishment we have made huge strides in tackling racism, using football as a vehicle for change.
I have been involved with SRtRC since its first year. It was founded when Shaka Hislop, who was playing as goalkeeper for Newcastle at the time, was racially abused by youths at a petrol station. When he turned around and was recognized as a footballer, the abuse stopped and they asked him for his autograph instead. Shaka contacted Ged Grebby (the founder of Stand Up To Racism) regarding the incident and had a chat about how footballers can be used as a tool to tackle racism. This discussion led to the formation of Show Racism the Red Card.
T: SRtRC has a focus on using high profile footballers in its films and promotional campaigns. What impact does this have?
CF: Football is a hugely watched sport and it is only getting bigger. When we have high profile footballers getting the message across that racism is unacceptable, it has a massive effect. These footballers are role models to football fans and in particular to children. I saw Chris Hughton play for Ireland as a kid. He was a young black player who played in my position. When I saw him play, I thought, [i]I can do that too[i]. That is the effect that representation has, so it is extremely powerful to use figures like Marcus Rashford and Gareth Southgate to raise awareness. These individuals have also either experienced or witnessed racism within football, so are able to highlight these issues and help to create change.
T: How was your experience growing up?[b]
CF: I was born, grew up and went to school in Dublin. I was the only black person amongst four hundred students at school. There were no other students who looked like me and it remained like that until my brother joined two years later. As a child, I think you’re oblivious to the colour of your skin until you start getting comments directed at you. I remember walking home across a bridge from one estate back when I was ten. An older man directed racial abuse at me. I was only a kid and it scared me, the amount of venom he said it with. It hit home that I was different. To this day, I vividly recall the animosity and hurt I felt. This one incident drives me every day to change attitudes.
When I started playing professional football in the ’90s, I was a target for abuse. Comments and racist rhetoric from the stands became the norm and I eventually accepted that it was something I had to get used to. There was no one to report it to – if you wanted to keep playing, the only option was to get used to it. Personally for me, I felt a change in the culture of football supporters when stadiums became all-seated as it became very difficult for groups to gather and gain momentum for racist abuse. It made it more difficult for them. Racism within stadiums is far less common now but social media has become the new home for racism in football.
T: How has racism in football changed in the twenty-five years since SRtRC was established? Has there been improvement?
CF: I think there has been a lot of progress in the last twenty-five years.
Back in the ’90s, a lot of the racist rhetoric at the time was acceptable. Monkey chants were acceptable. At the time, players didn’t come out and make statements like they do today, because racism was just something you had to take on the chin. Players also didn’t want to speak out because it could have implications on their careers.
The biggest development for me is that people are no longer afraid to speak about racism. People aren’t afraid to discuss why it is unacceptable that players like Raheem Sterling are applauded after a good performance, but racially abused after a poor performance. A big part of that has been the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has created a more open dialogue about racism. Footballers taking the knee is also very positive as millions of people are watching these games. I love seeing the knee being taken as there would’ve been no chance of it happening a few years ago, and now we have an anti-racist message being broadcasted just before kick-off at games with a huge and international audience.
It’s without a doubt a positive change that these conversations are happening at every level of the game. But it’s important not to get complacent. Football reflects a cross-section of society and although physical abuse has declined, social media abuse has escalated.
T: As you mentioned, football is facing a huge battle to root out racism from social media platforms. What are the main challenges with social media and what do you think can be done to combat the abuse received by players?[b]
CF: Social media organisations tend to be vague when it comes to racism in football and they do not do enough to prevent racial abuse. There is no doubt that these companies have to make a stand and be held accountable.
The social media blackout was good to see but I don’t think it has been strong enough. There needs to be a tougher stand, such as refusing to use these platforms until more is done. I also think identifiable accounts will help to ban offenders. It’ll mean people can no longer be anonymous and their identities can be publicised to show what the racists in our society look like. It’ll make it difficult for these people to come back onto social media and repeat the same offences again.
T: Going forward, what are the ambitions of SRtRC?[b]
CF: It is fantastic that there are so many initiatives and ideas coming out within football to improve inclusion and counter racism, but we need to see them being put into action. Organisations like the FA need to deliver on these ideas and we need to see this on the ground. For me, grassroots is where it all starts and things will improve when we see inclusion in every area. SRtRC will continue to run our education programs, particularly for young people, and we want to keep growing. We have done a lot of work in changing perceptions and we hope to continue to use education as a tool to tackle racism.
For further information about how you can get involved in supporting SRtRC, go to www.theredcard.org.