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Gary Oliver: Football chiefs trip up in a PC minefield


What is the difference between being racist and being a racist? Alas, this is not an academic test of grammar, nor is it the setup for a corny joke. And the latest public figure to discover the fine distinction to be no laughing matter is Mark Sampson.

For the uninitiated, Sampson was the reasonably successful manager of England Women’s football team from 2013 until his sacking in September 2017. His dismissal ostensibly was the result of the Football Association belatedly acting upon an earlier safeguarding report that found ‘inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour’ by Sampson during his previous managerial job at Bristol Academy. Though emphasising that nothing illegal had occurred – there is no suggestion that he is the UK’s Harvey Weinstein – the FA described Sampson’s transgression as ranging from ‘the trivial to the very serious’; misconduct that apparently included a consensual six-month relationship with an 18-year-old player and, in a reported phrase which will be admired by lovers of euphemism, ‘over-socialisation’ with his female players.

The more cynical observers viewed the timing of Sampson’s sacking as highly suspicious: the erstwhile manager remained the subject of a third investigation into allegations that in 2014 and 2015 he had racially abused players Eniola Aluko – discarded from the team in 2016 after alleging discrimination and bullying – and Drew Spence. Furthermore, the Football Association’s executives were soon to be questioned by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee regarding their governance, including the FA’s handling of what by then had become a toxic matter.

Before being thrown overboard, Mark Sampson had twice been cleared of making the alleged racist remarks, first by an internal FA inquiry and then by a subsequent investigation independently conducted by barrister Katharine Newton QC. And it was Newton, reprising her earlier investigation with the benefit of additional evidence (contemporaneous WhatsApp exchanges between Aluko and Spence), who again reported on October 18, shortly before the FA chiefs faced the Select Committee. Despite Sampson’s continued denials, this time Newton ruled: ‘On two separate occasions Mark Sampson made ill-judged attempts at humour, which, as a matter of law, were discriminatory of the grounds of race within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.’ Ah yes, self-defined racism under the Equality Act, against which the accused literally has no defence.

For the record, the gist of the offending comments, as detailed in the written evidence (points 48 and 50) submitted to the Select Committee by complainant Eniola Aluko, was that during a players’ meeting, Sampson had asked Drew Spence, the only non-white player present, how often she had been arrested, suggesting four times (Spence has never been arrested); and that Aluko’s Nigerian relatives, about to attend a match, were to ‘make sure they don’t come over with Ebola’ – a line which Aluko only later came to regard as racist. Written down, these ‘ill-judged attempts at humour’ suggest that whatever the future holds for Mark Sampson, he can forget about earning a living on the stand-up circuit. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that such remarks would be entirely non-sequiturs; and with Sampson continuing to deny both, crucially there remains no explanation of the context in which the remarks were apparently made.

The FA accepted the revised conclusion and apologised to both players – this being in addition to having earlier awarded Eniola Aluko a confidentiality settlement of £80,000, half of which had been withheld and was in dispute. The player described herself as being ‘relieved and vindicated’ by the outcome, though it should be noted that barrister Newton continued to reject Aluko’s overarching claim that there had been a ‘continuous course of discrimination, bullying and victimisation’ by Sampson and his staff. Incidentally, Aluko’s litany of complaints included the eyebrow-raising assertion that it was she being portrayed by a black actress hired by management to role-play a selfish and badly behaved footballer. I know football preparation has moved on; but honestly, training sessions as drama workshops?

It is interesting to note that, at least publicly, Mark Sampson had retained the support of most of his squad. And during what turned out to be Sampson’s final match in charge before his sacking, the England team, led by scorer Nikita Parris – herself black, should that matter – pointedly ran to their beleaguered manager to celebrate a goal. It was an act which the clearly disgruntled Eniola Aluko took personally as ‘a level of disrespect that represents division and selfish action’. At any time, professional football is littered with malcontents similarly antipathetic towards team managers. However, few disaffected players become such a nemesis as Aluko.

With the FA having been described by Select Committee member Jo Stevens MP as ‘shambolic’, no doubt the spotlight will now focus on the governance of the Football Association and its handling of the Aluko case. If those from the FA who faced the DCMS – the chairman, chief executive, technical director and HR director – all remain in office, it will be a major surprise.

But in today’s cultural climate, being thought incompetent is much less damaging than being stigmatised as racist; also, recovery is far easier. Mark Sampson is reported to be considering a claim for wrongful dismissal but for now he is outcast, and for the foreseeable future will almost certainly struggle to work again in professional football. Investigating barrister Katharine Newton concluded that, had Sampson remained in situ, she would have recommended immediate ‘equal opportunities and diversity training’ – that Orwellian-sounding, compulsory re-education of those who breach the ever-shifting boundaries of racial etiquette. Nevertheless, Newton also stated: ‘I consider it fundamentally important to emphasise that I have not concluded that Mark Sampson is a racist.’

That’s as may be. However, the outcome of this protracted episode is that two attributed remarks deemed ‘discriminatory on grounds of race’, neither of which was abusive in the conventional sense, have branded Mark Sampson. But is he now characterised as being racist or of being a racist? Officially it’s the former but general perception, gleaned largely from headlines, will almost certainly be of a man now shamed for being the latter. And from the evidence so far in the public domain, that cannot be right.

Tangentially, amidst this minefield of state-enforced equality and non-discrimination, the Football Association almost stood on another trap. Having previously stated that the FA had appointed investigating barrister Katharine Newton because of her being a black woman, Chief Executive Martin Glenn backpedalled in front of the DCMS, describing this as ‘an embellishment’, having first been reminded that such a tactic would be ‘illegal in discrimination law’. And indeed, in point 104 of her written evidence, Eniola Aluko stated: ‘The FA’s decision to appoint somebody on the basis of their skin colour was wholly inappropriate.’

Amen to that laudable sentiment. But hang on: scroll back a few months to the start of the Grenfell Tower inquiry and the appointment of retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick. Local MP Emma Dent Coad called for him to be replaced by ‘someone who can understand humans’. And the reliably ridiculous David Lammy went further still in his denunciation of the ‘white, upper-middle-class man, rhetorically asking: ‘Whose side will he be on?’, and raging that the appointment should have been a ‘woman or ethnic minority’.

So there we have it: approved profiling is vital to satisfy sanctimonious politicians of the Left but the Football Association dared not admit to having made a similarly calculating choice. As the FA found, when wishing to select on the basis of gender or ethnicity, the playing field is not a level one.

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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