Two black managers in four English divisions aren’t nearly enough

Does English soccer need a “Rooney Rule?” Something that forces leading clubs to interview minority candidates for available coaching jobs?

Not according to the chairman of second-tier club Blackpool, Karl Oyston, who said it would be “ridiculous” and an “absolute insult to people in football.”

What is ridiculous and insulting to people with non-white skin who would like to be in soccer, though, is that among English football’s top 92 clubs, there are only two black managers: Huddersfield’s Chris Powell and Carlisle’s Keith Curle. (Les Ferdinand has just been appointed as head of football operations at QPR, where he is a revered former player.)

The number will naturally fluctuate slightly from year to year given managing a soccer club is a slightly less stable venture than walking a tightrope in a tornado. But even if the figure was 10 black managers it would still be disproportionately low. About 25 percent of players in England are non-white.

For some reason — and it’s logical to perceive that the reason is institutional racism, and perhaps a perception of institutional racism which deters potential coaching candidates — English soccer’s enthusiastic embrace of black players on the field does not extend to the dugout after they hang up their boots.

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Hiring decisions, of course, are generally made by the chairmen and senior directors of clubs, and those people are overwhelmingly old white guys. Prejudice in English soccer, once as overt and blatant as a grotesque terrace chant, has now morphed into something more subtle, intangible, and happening in boardrooms and offices rather than in the stands or on the field. It’s the throwing of a resume into the trash, not the lobbing of a banana.

Long after the physical talents of black players in England silenced racists, it appears that many who want to become coaches have an unseen battle to persuade powerbrokers that their mental acuity, leadership skills, and work ethic are as good as anyone else’s.

To be clear, lack of representation of ethnic minorities in senior managerial roles is not just a soccer problem. It’s a societal problem in the U.K., and in plenty of other western nations. According to Fortune, only four percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are minorities.

Last year, an official report for U.K. politicians found that only 4.2 percent of British members of parliament were from ethnic minorities, yet 13 percent of the population is non-white.

Equal opportunities and the smashing of glass ceilings are complex long-term issues for society, but they ought to be solvable for a professional soccer community that, despite all the publicity it attracts, is actually small and self-contained: a hundred or so clubs with only a couple of thousand players and coaching staff. And soccer, like sports in general, is one of the most meritocratic microcosms this planet has to offer because of the pressure for success. It has no patience for incompetence and is cut-throat competitive.

But though the debate about the lack of black coaches comes up every year without fail, nothing ever seems to change. So after all the talk, there needs to be some sort of action.

“Appointments have to be on merit,” added Oyston, who last year made Paul Ince the club’s first black manager in its 127-year history. And that’s of course true, but it’s not incompatible with the spirit of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which is about giving non-white candidates the chance to demonstrate their potential in interviews, not forcing bosses to appoint them. It’s not a mandate for employment quotas.

Gordon Taylor, head of the English players union, is in favor, though Curle thinks the idea is pointless.

And though it appears to have helped in the NFL, Curle may ultimately be proved right. But there is surely no harm in adopting the rule and seeing what happens, provided it can be properly enforced to ensure there is no tokenism. At the least, it will publicize the issue, prompt more debate, and perhaps persuade more would-be black coaches put off by perceived racism to complete coaching courses.

It will incentivize black players who otherwise might feel their hard work in learning the trade would simply go to waste, resulting in a shortage of qualified black candidates that perpetuates the problem. Putting the issue front and center would also surely force club decision-makers to confront prejudices that may be unconscious.

You can even put aside emotional appeals for fair and just treatment and make a cold-eyed argument based purely on the forces of capitalism. Whatever they may privately feel in their hearts, the competitive and economic pressures on club chairmen will in the end make them unable to ignore a flood of highly-qualified black managerial candidates.

Once English soccer’s finally sorted this problem out, maybe it can turn its attention to getting the number of female managers of leading clubs up from its present, arguably quite low, tally of zero. For a sport that basically never dips into a talent pool comprising a massive proportion of its former players and 51 percent of the general population, you’d have to say that overall, English soccer’s doing surprisingly well for itself.