On Sunday 4 February 2007, I stayed up late and joined millions of other sports fans to watch the Super Bowl – a huge occasion filled with excitement, buildup and anticipation creating a special occasion every year. This one, however, was unique as history was about to be made in a way that would deeply excite, inspire and resonate with me and will stay with me for the rest of my life.
One of the coaches of the teams – Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts or Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears – was about to become the first BAME head coach to place their hands on the coveted Vince Lombardi Super Bowl trophy. They looked just like me, were positive role models I could relate to and were an example that no matter the colour of my skin, my gender or my religion I could aspire to be anything I wanted to be with humility and hard work.
These men and the opportunity they embraced embodied the famous Martin Luther King dream half a century previously that his children “will one day live in a nation where they are no longer judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” and the fact that these two head coaches could be successful while being sound role models and influential mentors to their peers of every race and creed, regardless of the tone of their skin.
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The legacy left by the Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney and his advancement of the Rooney Rule – a stipulation where at least one of the interviewed candidates for coaching job was of BAME background – has undeniably enabled coaches to be considered for jobs in the NFL that were previously unattainable. It wasn’t positive discrimination or tokenism as there are, quite rightly, no guarantees of anyone getting the job but purely a grudging acceptance that the cultural coaching diversity in the NFL needed to be addressed.
In the past week the annual Sports People’s Think Tank (SPTT) report has been published and clearly states that the ethnic background of coaches who occupy the most senior coaching positions in our football is nowhere near mirroring the ethnic background of players in our professional game and it has called for the introduction of our own version of the Rooney Rule.
I strongly believe that the ethnic background of a coach doesn’t make a difference in their competence to do the job and nor does it influence their ability, so opportunities should be based solely on merit.
However, it is undeniable that at all levels of our game for many years the ethnic backgrounds of players are vastly underrepresented in high-level coaching positions. Is there a conscious or unconscious prejudice of race when it comes to managerial positions? The answer to that question cannot be truly answered, yet should not be ignored and the damning statistics speak for themselves.
I remember bumping into a black former team-mate of a mine who’d won the Champions Leagues, league titles and had a career at the very highest level with club and country.
When I told him I had the ambition to manage and coach after my career was over he winked and scoffed: “You’ve got no chance of a job!” I’ve seen discrimination as a young boy when my father was turned away from an opposing team boardroom when going to meet his chairman because the doorman said: “There’s no way you are the manager.”
The sad reality is that many BAME footballers with huge experience in the game, who have had much more successful careers than me, will be lost to the next generation of players because of their cynicism (or realism?) in doing their coaching licences, gaining qualifications and then being overlooked for roles purely based on the colour of their skin. There has to be something in the fact that the experiences these players have had in the game have led them to give up trying to be a coach and that’s a disgraceful scenario.
Coaching is more than just “knowing football” – it is about having genuine empathy and engagement with players while being able to relate to them on a football, social and psychological level. In my own career I’ve seen so many misunderstood young talents from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds struggle in our football culture and fall out of the game completely where maybe a coach with a similar background could engage, empathise and motivate them to maximise their potential.
There has been debate whether the Rooney Rule will be good for our game or if it’s another example of positive discrimination and tokenism. Surely that debate is missing the point? The truth is, if we don’t do something positive to address this disengagement, we are losing hundreds of potential Tony Dungys, Lovie Smiths or Chris Hughtons because of their belief that they won’t be judged on the content of their character but on the colour of their skin.