Football must learn lessons from London 2012 to aid ongoing fight against prejudice

After the race rows that plagued the 2011-12 Premier League campaign, the success of the Olympics must be transferred to football to clamp down on the uglier sides of the sport

By Jay Jaffa

London 2012 enthralled us all, of that there is no doubt. The purity of competition, goodwill of those at each venue and raw emotion displayed by spectator to athlete separated the Games from its contemporaries, elevating it onto a pedestal and "inspiring a generation".

But in amongst the reams of newspaper tributes and website dedications to an event that far exceeded the expectations of most of the British public, a small few have used the opportunity to criticise the faults of the Premier League; namely its lack of class and the inherent tribalism that has plagued the sport.

Football has a place in our hearts and although it should be taken as a separate entity to the Olympics, valuable points have been raised in the afterglow of the London Games.
The England manager says the success of London 2012 is a wake-up call for football

For all football's thrills and spills there remains a backward, nasty undercurrent that seeps to the surface every now and again. Strides have been made to counter racism and homophobia over the past decade but last season – the most exhilarating in memory – saw two unsavoury incidents muddy waters that many would have us believe were crystal clear.

First came the Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra fracas, which led an FA investigation to hand the Uruguayan an eight-game ban and £40,000 fine for racially abusing the Manchester United full-back. Then, as the dust had just about settled in northern England, John Terry was accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand at Loftus Road.

The incident led to a criminal trial that detailed every insult and remark uttered not just in the west London fixture but on any given field of play as well. Terry was found not guilty but is currently awaiting the result of the FA investigation.

And it is the FA who the football community turn to and trust to make the correct decision. They were firm in their actions towards Suarez and Terry as well as Rio Ferdinand for retweeting a Twitter remark labelling Ashley Cole a 'choc ice'.

Although the general consensus views the FA as an organisation still lagging behind those of other primary sports in the UK, they should be commended for attempting to guide clubs over the use of social media and in particular, Twitter – a medium that has caused a high level of controversy in the past season.

The PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle revealed that along with guidelines issued to clubs in the UK, "the FA gave similar advice to England ahead of the Euros and will have policies in place in the future".

The key, it seems, is education and it's hard to knock the suggestion that footballers are not effectively prepared for what is expected of them as they mature into adults and role models.

As Tim Ridgeway from the Justin Campaign told "I think there's a need to educate the players, and this is where the clubs can take the lead.

"Footballers can be at a football club from the age of about six until they make their first-team debut at around 19. They live in a sort of bubble, and don't necessarily have that awareness of what's going on outside their football club."

The Justin Campaign was established in 2008, 10 years after football's first openly gay player, Justin Fashanu, took his own life, and is aimed at raising awareness of homophobia in football. The abuse and prejudice Fashanu was subjected to is believed to have contributed significantly to his death in 1998 but despite the tragedy, homophobia remains the game's last great taboo.

"Why is it that, at every other level of society, sexuality doesn't matter, and yet in sport it's a massive problem?" Ridgeway asks.

It is an interesting question and one that those at the top of the game may wish to ignore. In fact, that is the problem in itself - homophobia, unlike racism, is not immediately obvious. Without a flagbearer in the footballing community, the issue can, and is (or was), swept under the carpet. 

Chris Basiurski, Chair of the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN) added: "I don't think players and managers show the same commitment to speaking out against homophobia as they do racism, but I don't think that's a sinister thing.

"Having said that, the likes of Joey Barton and David James have spoken out on the issue before, and that's really welcome."
For all football's thrills and spills there remains a backward, nasty undercurrent that seeps to the surface every now and again

But the campaign continues to suffer from thoughtless comments - Antonio Cassano remarked before Euro 2012 that he hoped their were no gay players in the Italy squad - and that is where exasperation festers. As one of European football's most colourful players, choosing to speak so candidly before one of the biggest events in the sport produces two outcomes: it keeps the issue in the public domain and showed there remains plenty of work to be done.

The FA are one of the chief protagonists in the effort to educate on, from top to bottom, the idea of equality, from anti-racism to anti-homophobia and are channelling their efforts into bringing the two issues ever further to the public conscience.

The FA's Adrian Bevington stated: "Football has done a fantastic job in getting rid of racism and everyone across the game can take credit in shifting that landscape of hatred to one of understanding and appreciation of cultural differences."

Unfortunately the supporters often cop plenty of flak for their role in such issues. The tribalism referenced earlier may be on the wane thanks to greater enforcements of behaviour in the stands, but much of football's reactions to confrontations between players from different walks of life bring a depressing reminder of how much more still needs to be done. That said, the past season left the racism question firmly in the lap of the players.

Where tears on the cheeks of Olympic champions were seen as heroic and a sign of their dedication, such behaviour has always received the opposite reaction in the macho world of football, where the slightest hint of emotion exposes a 'mentally weak' individual.

Terry will be pilloried for the rest of his career by opposition fans - whether that is right, is a slightly different question (how much abuse is fair?) - and this will only serve to push the agenda of the game's biggest organisations.

Football has come a long way from the dark days of openly racist chanting and 'banter' on the pitch but it's clear that with the Olympic spirit still resonating, it has a long way to go to.

The FA Chairman David Bernstein said recently: "After the incredible high performance and sporting spirit we have seen at the Olympic Games, players must recognise that with the privilege of playing comes the responsibility for managing themselves and their behaviours in a similar way."

And that is where the game we love can learn from the Olympics. Rather than stack London 2012 up against the Premier League and argue which is better and who we'd rather have our children look up to, the greatest legacy it could leave in football is to help the sport move another step closer to finding equality on and off the pitch.

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