What happened to Rio Ferdinand yesterday ('sick racist chanting about burning people on bonfires') amply demonstrates that the positive cause I write about below could not be more valid and urgent. The total inability of the English FA to react appropriately speaks volumes. I haven't been a victim of racism my whole life, but I am beginning to understand how easily many are and how easily it is ignored by the rest of us.
Although Nirvana is a magical word with many different meanings and important spiritual connotations, for present purposes I am going to use just 2: liberation and salvation.
Last week I attended an inspiring and moving event in Leicester entitled 'Race for Football - National Road Show 2013'. It was organised by Leicester Nirvana FC and supported by The Voice newspaper, Society of Black Lawyers and Black and Asian Coaches Association (BACA).
The very first person that I spoke to at the event said that he had attended in order do 'his bit' to try to improve or remove issues of racism in football. Sadly however he also remarked that he had been talking about this subject for 20 years (his whole adult life essentially) and not a great deal had changed for the better.
Regrettably I also spoke to one attendees who seemed to only want to be seen to be doing the right thing, but who clearly had no desire to embrace multi culturalism at all.
According to recent research at Loughborough University (Dr Jamie Cleland and Professor Ellis Cashmore), racism in British football is 'rife'. Surveys of fans had revealed that the problem was believed to be 'endemic'.
At the Road Show all bar one of an audience approaching 100 people indicated that they had directly experienced racist abuse. Very few had made an official complaint, but if they had the outcome had been considered 'poor' in the majority of cases.
We watched a video presentation during which black and asian children spoke articulately about their experiences of being verbally abused on football pitches and from the touchline - often by adults. The Loughborough research seemed to be echoed at the Road Show. My predominant impressions were that the overwhelming majority of the audience felt that not enough was being done by the authorities and various anti racism campaigns within football to address this, particularly for them, very real and painful issue.
Roisin Wood Chief Executive of Kick It Out was a member of the Panel and she spoke very passionately. However as she told me during a break, KIO is caught on the horns of a dilemma, funded by the FA, and to a degree by the PFA and the Premier League, and therefore has its independence questioned. Remove FA support however and the charity would be obliged to seek commercial support which would almost certainly compromise its independence further. I say funded, but that budget is approximately £440,000 per annum, the equivalent of the weekly wages of perhaps 4 premiership players, and KIO numbers just 7 people. Having met Roisin I am convinced that KIO could achieve so much more if it were given adequate and meaningful funding. I would have liked to develop that discussion. Why does the football community think that its lead anti racism charity is only worth a minute fraction of the vast sums of money pouring into the game? Criticism of KIO for not having sufficient impact or for not doing enough, often expressed as 'just handing out t - shirts', cannot be justified given that level of resources. KIO is non investigatory and non sanctioning. Its role is education, advocacy and support. I would like to help KIO.
The prevailing mood of the gathering was that the football authorities remain very unrepresentative, predominantly white, male institutions. The pace of change is glacial and, as Colin King of BACA observed, it can take a whole career to progress through an organisation like the FA before acquiring the appropriate blazer (usually from somebody who has passed to another life - he was only partly joking!) The mismanagement of the John Terry Case had given many the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the FA's main priority had been to ensure that Terry was available for Euro 2012. The woefully inadequate punishments handed out for racist chanting across Europe reinforce the view that there is insufficient will in football governance to address the need for change, and that any action is merely window dressing.
The FA's representative on the Panel, Jonathan Mills, was at pains to emphasise the FA's FA's Anti Discrimination Action Plan. The audience were dubious and particularly sceptical about the likely benefits of the initiative. Keith Murdoch of Leicestershire County FA seemed very willing to engage with minority community groups and responsive to Leicester Nirvana's cause of 'removing racial discrimination wherever it exists'. At a local level it was encouraging and seemed feasible that better representation and enlightenment could be achieved. However the stories of the abuse suffered by ethnic minorities whilst playing a sport in Leicester were dispiriting.
Nirvana FC was formed in 1982 to enable young black and Asian children from Inner city Leicester areas to have a sporting opportunity in a positive and supportive environment. In spite of tremendous hurdles and some needless obstacles, the club has thrived against the odds. Youngsters have progressed to the professional game and there are approximately 50 Nirvana players who have gone through professional football academies.
Nirvana seek the following reforms to football governance:
*FA to invest in and work with grassroots clubs to tackle racial discrimination
*Local FA to develop transparent disciplinary procedure to address racial discrimination and abuse
*A compulsory module to be integrated in all FA coaching, managerial and refereeing qualifications that addresses multi cultural issues to develop participants cultural learning
*FA to provide a diversity breakdown of the distribution of facilities and funds at all levels
* FA to commit to addressing all racist incidents, involving Police and having a zero tolerance approach to repeat offenders.
I met a lot of fantastic people that night. There was no hostility towards me as a minority person amongst that audience. I found that everybody wanted to engage and to learn. The event was full of hope and ambition. It is just a beginning, essentially driven by ordinary (but also extraordinary) people.
To my mind the goals are Nirvana - the liberation of all people to enjoy 'the beautiful game' equally, and the salvation of the true essence of that sport cleansed of the curse that is racism.