The Premier League is back and so is its race problem

Football in England has a race problem. And it’s not the one you’re probably thinking of. The recent high profile cases involving racial abuse on the pitch by Luis Suarez and John Terry were disturbing, and not handled impressively by the English FA and Premier League authorities, but such incidents are notable largely by their rarity. In the stands, there has been no replication of the vile behavior of some supporters in Italy and Spain that have led to stadium closures and (paltry) fines for racist chanting. English football’s race problem is in the dugout.

There are 92 clubs in the four levels of English Football League system. Of those 92, precisely none are currently led by a manager of an ethnic minority group. The top division in the league system, The Premier League, has had four black managers since its inception; two of those are Chris Hughton. Hughton was the last black manager to be employed in the Football League, until he was fired by Norwich City towards the end of last season in a bid to stave off relegation. Norwich was relegated anyway, and Hughton is currently out of work.

It would be unfair to highlight the specific examples of black managers being sacked as evidence of discrimination. Football is a cut-throat business, and coaches and managers – black or otherwise – often suffer the ultimate penalty for poor results, whether deserved or not. The problem is not necessarily with how minority managers are treated, but rather with how few people of color are given the opportunity to manage at all.

Critics may well point out that the lack of black football managers is not altogether out of step with England’s ethnic makeup. After all, less than five percent of the English population self-identify as black, so it makes sense to some that black professionals would not be highly represented in football management. But that fails to tell the whole story. Among current Premier League managers, only José Mourinho has not played the game professionally. If the vast majority of managers come from the ranks of former players, and over a quarter of the current players are ethnic minorities, then how is it that there is not a single black manager? English football is rightly respected for being ahead of much of Europe in the way that it has embraced diversity on the pitch, and cracked down effectively on ugly chants in the stands. That commitment to inclusion, however, does not seem to extend to the most important jobs in club football.

Institutional racism, of course, is not unique to English football. In America, the NFL – the governing body of the most popular sport – recognized a similar paucity of black coaches and sought to rectify it. Established in 2003, the Rooney Rule requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each head coach and football operation vacancy. It does not enforce a quota, and strictly speaking, it is not an example of affirmative action. It does not guarantee “equality,” only that ethnic minorities be given the opportunity to interview for top jobs. The results have been notable. Three years after the Rooney Rule was introduced, the percentage of black coaches in the NFL jumped from 6 to 22 percent. While the application of the rule may still be imperfect, most would consider it a success.

A Rooney Rule style mandate would not be an instant solution to English football’s race problem, and there are other angles from which the issue can and should be approached. It would however, ensure that minority managers are at least considered for hire. No sensible advocate for workplace diversity would ever call for a less-qualified non-white candidate to be hired over a better-suited white one. Tokenism would create problems anew before it solved the current ones. Rather, the call is for the sport’s governing bodies to provide the opportunity to compete. Football is the ultimate meritocracy. As a player, if you are good enough, you get your chance. If those at the boardroom level of club management do not currently have the appetite to hire minority coaches, then something along the lines of the Rooney Rule will at least compel them to broaden their search, and at least give black coaches their chance.

Until the Football League, the Premier League, and the FA take serious steps to demonstrate their commitment to addressing the lack of diversity in football management, the lack of non-white faces in the dugout will continue to be a damning indictment.

Enjoy the new season!