Racism still pervades every aspect of every stratum of our society though we are publicly agreed that it is bad, and as such, the treatment of Eni Aluko by the England women’s coaching team and subsequent cover-up by the Football Association was not especially surprising. And yet the breadth and depth of it all remains staggering, a catalogue of callousness which captures just how wrong we can still get things.
In the first instance, Mark Sampson, the team manager, singled out Drew Spence, a mixed race player, asking her how many times she had been arrested. No complaint was made, nor was it when he told Aluko to make sure that visiting relatives from Nigeria didn’t “bring Ebola with them”. But sometime later Aluko, an international of 11 years’ standing, was asked to participate in a review of team culture so reported the incidents. There followed an internal investigation in which no one spoke to Spence though she had put in a written report, and amazingly, nothing untoward was discovered.
Aluko was quickly dropped from the team for what Sampson called “unLioness behaviour”, and might easily have stepped away thereafter – next, the FA arranged for her to lose her job as a lawyer for a football agency, and this was only the start of the bullying. But she showed phenomenal strength of character to stick with it, and eventually, thanks also to the superb reporting of the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor, we learnt the truth.
Though the story broke in August, that was not the end of it, because it is more comfortable for people to believe that victims of discrimination are in fact victims of their own misjudgment – if we’re being kind. So Aluko was subjected to unconscionable criticism, not just from random punters on the internet but from senior members of the press until, a month later, Sampson was sacked for “inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour” in a previous role. This prompted DCMS to investigate him, and on Wednesday, everything came out at hearing. Amazingly, it transpired that Aluko was not enduring unfathomable stress for the profound pleasure of imagining racism, but was in fact telling the truth; the litany of shame can be read here.
Yet even now that the facts are clear and speak for themselves, the words used by the protagonists are not and do not. The FA began the hearing by stating its desire to “sincerely apologise”, which rang alarm bells rather like when a person declares themselves to be trustworthy or humble. If they feel the need to say it, it’s in their mind that they aren’t or have reason not to be. It should go without saying that any “apology” is “sincere”, except the FA did all it could for as long as it could to avoid apologising, which is to say that there is nothing remotely “sincere” about their “apology”, other than their desire to make this disappear as quickly as possible.
But then what did they have to “sincerely apologise” for? Katherine Newton’s revised report did not deem Sampson to be racist, but that he had made “ill-judged attempts at humour which, as a matter of law, were discriminatory on grounds of race”. Newton also noted that Sampson is “not racist”, but “appears to have difficulty judging appropriate boundaries when engaging in ‘banter’ with players”,the inference that his problem is one of management, not perspective.
So Newton concluded that Sampson “did treat Eni Aluko less favourably that he would have a player who was not of African descent”, a summation which seems to satisfy the Oxford English Dictionary, in which “racist” is defined as “showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races”.
As for Sampson, it may be that he did not mean to be racist, did not know he was being racist, and some of his best recipients of ill-judged humour are black. But his failure to show any contrition when alerted to his misdeeds and instead viciously attack his victim, does not speak strongly in his defence.
And Martin Glenn, the FA chief executive, knew how important these uses of language were, citing a bit which suited him – that Sampson had made “ill-judged attempts at humour” – in his own evidence. Moreover, Aluko later revealed that after she agreed an £80,000 pay-off, she was called to a meeting and told that half of it would be withheld if she did not issue a statement asserting that the FA was not “institutionally racist”. “Bordering on blackmail” was her summation.
Glenn also declared, with a straight face, that “our ambition has always been to find the truth and take swift, appropriate action if needed”. The instinct here is to lurch after a blatant lie. The FA showed no interest whatsoever in finding the truth let alone acting, swiftly or otherwise, until things got so intense it had no choice. But the key word actually comes earlier in the piece: “ambition”. Not “imperative” or “duty”, words which signify a moral obligation to succeed, rather something you will try to accomplish, and if you can’t, you can’t. Or, put another way, even after so unpleasant a wrongdoing, treating people with dignity and respect is a nice to have, not an essential.
The bizarreness did not end there. Instead of showing submission and contrition, Glenn went after the PFA, instrumental in helping Aluko finally achieve justice and who had, for example, emailed a six-page report telling Greg Clarke, the FA chairman, that Lee Kendall, the team’s goalkeeping coach, used to speak to Aluko in a fake Caribbean accent. “I’ve no idea why you are sending me this,” Clarke replied. “Perhaps you could enlighten me.”
Such indignant entitlement and confrontational disdain indicated beyond doubt that Glenn has grasped neither the gravity of his misdeeds nor the implications of this situation. The disgrace over which he presided cannot be styled out or misdirected from, and the behaviour of his body is so appalling as to render his opinion of another irrelevant.
To prove it, Glenn later insisted that while the FA had “failings”, it was not an “association failing”. This cannot be so. If senior employees are behaving in a racist manner, if those at the top are complicit in facilitating them, it really does not matter what else is going on. However good it is, it is still failure.
Every aspect of this tawdry affair has dripped with racism, whether casual, dogwhistle, vindictive or institutional, and the way society marginalises and attacks black women will not have been lost on those in the wrong here. Sampson’s “unLioness” slur variously implied that Aluko is not brave, not strong, not loyal, not trustworthy, not dignified, and most definitely does not represent England, playing on historical slurs and ostracising her from her team-mates, who later celebrated a goal by mobbing him. On this occasion no words were necessary.
Likewise, Glenn and Clarke will have known the pressure and bile Aluko would have to face on account of being a black woman, daring her to hang in there and backing themselves to outlast her. That they could not is testament to a woman whose dignity and integrity have everything to teach not only them, but all of us.
Strangely, Glenn has not yet resigned – nor was he encouraged to by the sports minister, Tracey Crouch; “I hope that the FA learns lessons for this whole sorry saga,” she said. When Aluko was reckoned to have lessons to learn, she sat at home watching her team-mates play international sport without her. Now that Glenn is deemed in need of taking on his own lessons, he is simply carrying on, his culpability without consequence. What could possibly be the difference?