What can brands do to fight racism in football?
For those who are fortunate enough to watch European football club competitions in midweek, UEFA’s ‘No to Racism’ video message rings loud and clear.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and a host of other superstars extol the importance of tolerance and understanding.
But the message is not getting through.
As Brexit dominates politics in the UK and countries in Europe see a rise in right wing doctrine, so racism has become more commonplace at stadia across the world.
Last year, Kick It Out, UK football’s anti-discrimination organisation, reported an 11% rise in reports of discriminatory abuse during the 2017-18 season with racism up by 22% and homophobia by 9%.
In 2019 alone, there have been numerous incidents where high profile players have been the subject of racist abuse, including Liverpool striker Mo Salah by both West Ham and Chelsea fans; Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly against Arsenal and Juventus striker Moise Kean, whose captain Leonardo Bonucci then made a clumsy response to the taunts by Cagliari fans.
While Kick it Out has long been vocal about the scourge of racism in football, the Premier League has recently launched its own initiative ‘No Room for Racism’ which promotes inclusion and diversity within the game and while football cannot be blamed for society’s ills, it certainly magnifies the increasing racial prejudice that is emerging.
Some players decided to stage a 24-hour social media blackout in protest but how much of an impact will that have unless it affects brands and clubs directly?
At international level, England’s black players were targeted with monkey chants in Montenegro, prompting football authorities to have their say, rightly condemning the incidents.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has suggested “harsh sanctions” and a “zero-tolerance approach,” adding that “Racism has no place in football. In recent days, it has been very sad to see a number of racist incidents in football. This is really not acceptable.”
And UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin went further, suggesting that referees could stop matches when fans chant racist abuse and that disqualifying teams could also be an option.
“It's 2019, it's not 100 years ago,” said Ceferin. “The moment a match is stopped, or it's not played, I think that 90% of normal people in the stadium would kick the asses of those idiots.
"If it's chronic, we could throw out a club team or a national team from a competition. Everything is possible. But that is a last resort."
But is that really an option, at national or international level?
Clubs and associations rely on broadcasters and brands for much of their revenue, with players also benefiting from lucrative sponsorship deals.
It says much for the increasing problem football now faces that England and Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling has become one of the most outspoken critics of racism.
His commentary, though admirable, needs to be echoed by football’s authorities, managers, players and fans at all levels to call out anyone who thinks it is acceptable to discriminate on any grounds and while Nike have run a campaign with Sterling, more needs to be done.
It is up to brands to take a stand and with football being such a goldfish bowl, provide a positive example for society rather than one of shame.
Sport has often been criticised for a lack of diversity in administrative and leadership positions – there are currently only two BAME managers in the Premier League, for instance, far from a reflection of society in general.
How many of the brands involved in football or sport in general have genuine diversity from the ground floor to Board level?
How many brands take firm action against racist behaviour by the players that they support – or even the clubs whose fans are guilty of such action?
Sterling, in a column launching an anti-racism campaign in The Times, calls for harsher sanctions and he certainly has a point that modest fines have little impact in the big scheme of things.
Playing games behind closed doors with all the lost revenue that entails; competition elimination or points deductions; and fines in line with the revenue guilty clubs receive would certainly focus the minds of clubs and administrators.
And what brands, whether global or regional, want to be associated with clubs (specifically their fans), players or competitions where racism rears its ugly head?
Those brand associations could have a direct impact on both their reputation and their sales.
There is a huge opportunity for brands to lead the conversation, set an example and call out any absence of direct action that helps to eradicate racism in football.
A recent survey showed that the world’s consumers would rather spend money on brands that take a stand on issues over companies that shy away from controversy.
If that’s not a wake-up call for sports sponsors to take a stand, to lead by example, nothing is.