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.

Gary Oliver

  • paul parmenter

    The solution seems obvious. Ensure that the entire committee of the FA, and every national team manager, meets the criteria that will put them beyond any possible breach of the Equality Act – as properly interpreted and applied, that is. The fact that this will require every such person to be a black transgendered lesbian of a religious belief, class and background approved by David Lammy, is entirely coincidental. As will be any knowledge of football, of course.

    • lizmilton

      Have a look at

      David Lammy on Mastermind 🙂

      • Mill House

        Yes, I loved it when he identified Henry VII as Henry VIII’s successor.

    • Ordovici

      And even more obvious make sure that the England team and all Pl, Championship, League 1 and League 2 teams conform to the same rigorous standards.

  • Colkitto03

    The FA should never have taken on women’s football. They have ended up subsidising something that does not have a economical business case. They are only ever going to get criticism and trouble because of it.

    The women’s game should have its own association and should fund itself. After all, all those strong, independent, girls must shudder at being reliant on money generated by the men’s game.

    • Labour_is_bunk

      Would a women’s FA have quotas? We can only speculate.

    • timbazo

      You are aware that the FA is responsible for all levels of football and not just elite level?

      • Colkitto03

        Yes, when Lincoln City are playing away I watch a lot of Non league and local Sunday league football here in Lincolnshire.I even went to watch the Lady Imps a few times before they decided to desert the City and became Notts County (and then went bust)

  • Labour_is_bunk

    Women’s football has been heavily promoted as The Next Big Thing, in particular by our beloved BBC, in recent years.
    Now the realisation has set in that it’s not all sweetness and light, but has plenty of dirty linen like its male counterpart, one feels that the gilt has worn off the gingerbread very quickly. It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds.

    • lizmilton

      Everything “women” is being promoted to denigrate white men…see
      the list on

      “The Quiet revolution moves forward.”

      • Kaiser

        womens football will kill itself, the left are already pushing the “Gender Pay Gap theory” conveniently ignoring the pay gaps in the mens game within the same team

        some idiot will insist the women get paid the same as rooney, make it law and hey presto end of the womens game

        • infinitemonkeys

          To be fair the top women will soon be getting the same as Rooney – his career is almost over.

    • infinitemonkeys

      The BBC are only interested in Women’s Football whilst the men’s is unavailable to them. Should they ever manage to get live Men’s Football back on the TV the women’s fifth rate efforts will be quietly abandoned.

  • CitymanMichael

    Sampson’s biggest problem was that he was a white man – easy target.

    • timbazo

      Sampson’s biggest problem was that he used his position as team selector to get sex.

      • Shaunr19

        And your evidence for such an accusation is…?

        • Nick Muir

          That’s why he was sacked. Google is your friend on this. ‘Inappropriate’ behaviour in a previous position in Bristol. His crass behaviour in the England job is just the icing on the cake.

          • Shaunr19

            The accusation made by timbazo was that “…he used his position as team selector to get sex” Are you saying that is categorically what he did? And what is the basis for that claim? From what I read of his affair with a player it was consensual.

          • Nick Muir

            It’s really simple mate. There are something like 3 billion women in the world. Mr Sampson was in a position of trust and of those 3 billion there were 30 or so he had to keep his paws off. He failed in this fairly straightforwards task, making him comprehensively unfit to manage the national team. Which is why the FA sacked him. Why they ever employed him in the first place is a different matter.

          • Shaunr19

            Nice dodge. But it still doesn’t answer the question/accusation as to whether he used his position to coerce/force one of the ‘3 billion’ to sleep with him. His behaviour is not the question in regard to the accusation levelled at him. The accusation implies that he coerced/forced the lady involved to sleep with him. So was it consensual, or not?

          • digitaurus

            The available evidence suggests that it was consensual and timbazu’s comment goes too far. His/her long summary just above this set of comments is much more useful.

    • Nick Muir

      Sampson’s biggest problem was that he was a half-wit.

  • timbazo

    An attempt at a comprehensive summary of the issues, but not comprehensive enough. The ‘additional evidence’ that Katherine Newton QC obtained was, I believe, third party verification of Aluko’s complaint. It seems that the FA did not seek the account of third parties to settle a dispute where one party said one thing and the other denied the accusation. My suspicion is that the FA didn’t ask for witness testimonies because they didn’t want to deal with the answers that they expected to get. That they thought that a black player coming to the end of her career with a non-disclosure agreement would go quietly back to whatever hood she had emerged from, never imagining that said black woman would be a qualified lawyer. The moral of the story is to deal with a complaint properly the first time.

    Then there is the question of a team manager having sexual relationships or making it clear he (or she) is open to having sexual relationships with his or her players. In most work situations, a relationship between a manager and a subordinate would be problematic when bonuses or promotion arises. In a football team, the problem arises immediately – when the manager selects his next team. It is no wonder the player at Bristol doesn’t want to talk about her relationship with Sampson. The first question she would be asked would be, “Did you sleep with him to get selected?” It would be illuminating to know why the relationship ended and what the other players thought of the situation. How many thought that team selection was affected by the relationship? How many asked whether they should have offered sex themselves? It is incredible that there was no clause in Sampson’s contract at Bristol prohibiting a relationship with a player.

    At least at club level, a player convinced that selection is affected by such a personal relationship could move club. At international level, the player can’t change country. The public show of support of the England players towards Sampson must be seen within the context that he was responsible for their selection or not for the following games. Was Sampson free to have a relationship with one of his England players? Again, there should have been a clause in his contract prohibiting it.

    We may not yet know the full story. Several articles I have read suggest that Sampson was particularly close to one of his players, the player who effectively replaced Aluko in the national team. Were this relationship to be sexual, it would go a long way towards explaining the strength of Aluko’s antipathy towards Sampson.

    • Only Me

      Didn’t Karren Brady have a relationship with a player under here whilst at Birmingham ?

      • John Standley

        Now her husband.

      • timbazo

        Yes, and he was transferred to a different club soon after the relationship started. It was not publicly stated why he made the move. However, the team manager would have been put in a difficult position, either feeling obliged to favour his employer’s love interest or being accused of doing so.

    • digitaurus

      Good summary. Thank you.

  • CheshireRed

    This entire case appears to have been a PC-motivated race sham, not for the first time nor likely the last. The players’ case of ‘racism’ insults the intelligence of anyone whose ever set foot in a dressing room, which are citadels of non-stop banter and p*ss-taking from first minute to last. Sometimes it’s droll, often hilarious and yes along the way many a remark falls close to various knuckles. Cue collective howls of hilarity from all present. Political correctness should become public enemy number 1. Destroy it before it destroys us.

    • Ed Mubarak

      This. Exactly this. Well said.

  • Fubar2

    Boom. Last paragraph absolutely nails it. Good article.

  • Simon Platt

    I’ve been following this episode in the news. Mark Sampson doesn’t come out of it too well, in my view, because of some of the business at Bristol (but, then, I hold to a higher standard of sexual ethics than is common these days). But Sampson comes out of this much better than his accusers, than the FA, than parliament. This outrage about racial discrimination is obviously synthetic, as CheshireRed says, below.

    What first caught my attention was the fact that this Nigerian woman who has played for England Ladies over a hundred times, more often than almost any other player, is able to get away with claiming racial discrimination after being dropped from the team at the end of a very successful career.

    • Bill Cook

      There really is no drama that the FA cannot turn into a crisis.

    • fitzfitz

      … when listening to the short sports reports on Radio 4 Today — usually gabbled by highly pitched women — it is now essential to grasp the gender of the National Team being reported on before reacting to the latest achievement … often it is now the femm’s team in play …

    • Only Me

      I am still wondering what exactly was wrong with the way Simpson acted at Bristol. Was it that he had a relationship with an 18 year old, or that he was her boss and you are not allowed to have a relationship with a player under you.

      • Simon Platt

        I think that relationship was Wrong. But that is informed by Catholic sexual ethics. The modern world thinks that if it feels good, do it. (I simplify a little, of course.) On that basis there seems to have been Nothing Wrong. I gather that they were, as the saying goes, Consenting Adults.

      • Landphil

        Yes – she has to be on top.

        • therealguyfaux ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

          Said the Bishop?

      • digitaurus

        In this situation, a coach is in a position to make or break a player’s career. A sexual relationship between a coach and one (or more) of these players can create tremendous problems. My understanding is that the FA has said (now) that it wouldn’t want to hire somebody who crossed that line – even though such a relationship is in no way illegal or, for most people, immoral. There is separately the ‘Harvey Weinstein’ effect where a person in a position of authority uses that leverage to engineer a sexual relationship. I don’t believe there is any suggestion that this was the case here, however.

  • fitzfitz

    … yet another “””parable of colonialist exploitation of third world peoples, ironically wrapped in an exotic adventure narrative “”” … just like the racialist Cambridge rush to get coloured writers onto various faculties …

  • ale bro

    I don’t see what’s controversial about this – we all know the rule of law doesn’t apply to politicians (e.g. selling seats in the house of lords is a criminal offence that is never prosecuted, neither are the instances of MPs procuring illegal drugs).

    However, the rules do apply to everyone else, so it’s right that the FA has to follow the Equality Act. I’m not really sure that the FA’s ex post facto claim that they didn’t really try and appoint a black lawyer is sufficient to escape censure.

    Finding a black lawyer to appoint is a racist act, because what’s really happening in that situation is that an assumption is made that a black lawyer will never be the best pick, but the circumstances mean that a second tier appointment is acceptable.

  • mark taha

    One thing that disgusts me about football is the way players are disciplined for expressing opinions on non-football matters. Another is that their Union puts up with it!

    • Labour_is_bunk

      Yet another is said Union has little or nothing to say about them diving all over the place and cheating each other.

  • Ravenscar

    ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’

    ‘Ladies football’ and don’t you dare laugh.

    Indeed, do the Furies of PC run, oversee and monitor the administration. Be afraid, be very, very afraid.

    What’s so funny, if you like trench humour that is, Mrs May in that vaguely unwitting way she has, extolling the virtues of British democracy.

    We are being mocked.

  • Fourmyle of Ceres

    I thought according to the political correct police we are all equal no matter what

    so isnt “womens football” sexist by definition?

    why arent the women in the england squad or playing in the premier league?

    could it be theyre not as good as the men?

    so not equal then

    • digitaurus

      I think you are mixing up your “equal”s.

  • Outraged Tunbridge Wells

    Interestingly 11 of 25 players in the Mens squad are black or mixed race, why are white, players so underepresented in terms of population stats. are the FA racist

  • TmWe

    Transgender note : The England Woman’s Football Team is due to be renamed “The England Persons Football Team” in recognition of the men now playing as ladies.

  • Dr Evil

    As jokes or attempts at humour these come over as pathetic. I suppose you had to be there. I’m sick and tired of all these allegations of racism. There’s always some form of ism these days. That law that lets some aggrieved individual say some comment was racist, waycist or just ist is a piece of rubbish that should be repealed. It is utterly ridiculous.

  • mariaveintiuno

    Most of the black women (and men) I have met are both arrogant and ignorant and think the world (particularly the British tax payer) owes them a living.
    Can write this without “causing offence” because I am more black than white?

  • AJ

    There are a number of issues conflated together.

    If Mark sampson had sexual relations with players he managed that is good grounds for dismissal. It would be impossible to give the impression of impartiality and sure to cause issues.

    The supposed racist remarks are ridiculous in an enviroment with the need for constant verbal communications, motivation and team building the idea that some remarks that could be interpretted as problematic in nature wil not arise is crasy. The key is whether there is a sustained pattern and the nature and tone of comments. Context is everything and that doe snot seem to have been considered.

    Coaches being accused of bullying is very problematic. This is now the third coach of women at international level accused of bullying. The nature of coaching especially at this level is that a big part must be motivating and pushing players to their limits. That coaches can then be accussed of bullying makes the job impossible and I predict a sharp decline in the sports which have taken ‘action’ against bullying. It is very significant that this series of accusations have all come from women.

    Lastly allowing atheletes/players who have been dropped to raise concerns about the reason for being dropped that result in formal enquiries etc make the job of coach impossible. The coach may be right or wrong but they are the coach and they have to make decisions. That this is taken seriously and a player gets ‘compensation’ at the end of an unusually long and successful career is illogical and sets a catastrophic precedent. Everyone may as well compalin on being dropped.

    • digitaurus

      I agree. His actions at Bristol seem to be the crucial ones and grounds for his dismissal, although everyone is being coy about what went on. The mystery here is how they were originally overlooked by the FA.

      I do think that coaches are in a position of tremendous asymmetric power over players in these sports where the coaches are responsible for picking squads. (That’s one reason why sexual relations are completely unacceptable). In the last, coaches had carte blanche to make decisions without really being required to explain themselves. In the future, not so much I think.