Black players lead English soccer on and off the field—but not in the boardroom

Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling.
Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling.
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The English Premier League (EPL), the wealthiest and most popular national soccer competition in the world, finally returns tomorrow. It was suspended, with no champion crowned, on April 3 after several players and a coach tested positive for Covid-19. In empty stadiums, teams will wear Black Lives Matter badges on their jerseys.

While team owners, TV companies, and sponsors complain about the temporary loss of revenue, two young Black superstar athletes have stood out for their contributions to battles against poverty and racism in extraordinarily challenging times, and made a case for the inclusion of Black talent in the game’s boardrooms. Although Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, aged just 22 and 25, are a long way from second careers in soccer, they are demonstrating the leadership and vision EPL and its teams may be missing at their highest levels.

Rashford is from Manchester, in northern England, and plays for Manchester United. Growing up in abject poverty, he didn’t always have enough to eat, and has been campaigning for children from low-income families to continue to receive meals during the summer vacation. He was successful, with the government finally backing down today, and has also raised $20 million for charity. Sterling, who plays for arch-rival Manchester City, was born in Jamaica, and his father was shot dead there when he was just two years old. He was then taken to the UK and lived with his mother and siblings in a tough housing project in northwest London, becoming a fearless spokesman for British youth on issues of race and opportunity.

A third of all players in the EPL are Black. But despite their numbers on the field, it’s virtually impossible for them to become a decision-maker in the sport: None of the 20 teams in the English Premier League’s (EPL) has a single Black director or executive, and there’s only one Black head coach, Nuno Espirito Santo of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

On the field, meanwhile, soccer may be the closest thing there is to a meritocracy in England. Nowhere else is there such a clear pathway for young Black men like Sterling and Rashford to become multimillionaires and national heroes. It is, of course, predicated on supernatural talent and a ferocious work ethic, in addition to luck—every player is one bad injury away from disaster—and, most importantly, changing attitudes.

In the 1970s, when young Black British players first emerged, they were often dismissed as lazy and timid by coaches and the media. They were more about natural physical ability than game intelligence, the theory went, and needed tough, savvy white players to guide them. Some news publications still single out Black players for criticism, especially Sterling, who has had to use his enormous brand power—more followers on Instagram than the combined circulation of every national newspaper—to eviscerate his tormentors.

Many fans were overtly racist in the old days, throwing bananas and making monkey noises in the dilapidated, dangerous stadiums. Black players would be accosted in the street and on public transportation, and told that they didn’t belong. That type of incident is much less common in stadiums than it once was, although the recent Black Lives Matter protests in London became an excuse for provincial thugs to travel to the capital—often under the banners of their teams—and cause serious trouble.

As protests that began in the US are echoed in other countries with significant Black populations, younger athletes like Sterling are in no mood to accept historical legacies of racism. “We have no representation of us in the hierarchy,” he told the BBC, “no representation of us in the coaching staffs.” He pointed out that successful white players are regularly offered high-profile coaching roles when they retire, while equally successful Black players struggle to find similar work. The EPL’s “no room for racism” statement focuses on racist incidents rather than structural reform.

One solution might be a US-style “Rooney Rule.” Named after Dan Rooney, the ex-Pittsburgh Steelers owner and former chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee, the idea is to interview at least one minority candidate for every high-profile role. But the EPL is not yet considering a similar policy, the Guardian reports. Kick It Out, English soccer’s main antiracism organization, is not convinced it could even work here without substantial changes. “We have a different culture, legal framework and employment practices in England,” said its chief executive Sanjay Bhandari.

It’s not as though the sport is lacking in resources to fix the problem. According to a recent report from Deloitte, the EPL generated a record £15 billion ($19 billion) in revenue last season, a rise of 9% from the previous year. Despite the restrictions it has faced during the coronavirus pandemic, it is expected to bounce back next year and bring in even more money. Former players who share the perspectives and leadership of Rashford and Sterling could make sure that all this money is directed where it’s actually needed.