Monthly Archives: October 2011

“Why Always Me?”

Of all the moments in the surreal Manchester City vs. Manchester United game today, there is one that will probably stay rooted in our imaginations for at least a little while: Balotelli’s cheeky question: “Why Always Me?” after his first goal. Like many of the most fascinating moments in football, this one was at once funny and irritating, appropriate and trangressive.

As soon as I saw this, my head began to spin as I tried to imagine Balotelli’s thought process. Going into a game against Manchester United, of course he badly wanted to score.  And he had his reasons for thinking he might: if he’s a little arrogant, he has his reasons, and self-confidence no doubt helps him play the way he does. Other players also have t-shirts concocted in preparation for scoring, sometimes with political or social messages: “Sympathize with Gaza,” in one famous case in Egypt, or “Paz in Villa Kennedy,” as Edouardo once requested to those in his violence-torn neighborhood back in Brazil.

But how did Balotelli decide on that particular message? It can be seen, after all, as fairly obnoxious. Having a shirt printed up in preparation of scoring is already a sign of arrogance, of course, but the usual tactic is to balance that out by having a message that isn’t about how awesome you are. Like Messi wishing his mom happy birthday, sweet wonderful son that he is. He got a yellow card too, but the gesture was unimpeachable.

Not Balotelli’s style, though. This was all about Balotelli, performing being Balotelli, at the ultimately moment of Balotelliness. And though probably his teammates didn’t really mind — hopefully they have a sense of humor — it’s a bit of rib towards them. Like, how come I’m always the one who scores, instead of the rest of all y’all? What’s up Kun, Nasri? Don’t have any goals in you? Why Always Me?

That Balotelli might think this, quietly to himself as he hugs his teammates and thanks them for assisting him in scoring, is not that surprising. You can imagine it crossing Rooney’s mind, or Messi’s mind: dude, why am I the awesomest out here, always? But that you would plan, in advance, to publicly make the point is pretty striking. So, too, is the fact that, although he knew you would get a yellow card, he clearly didn’t care. What’s a little card, waved in the air by an impotent referee, compared to the memorable glory of that celebration, of trying to make it just a little bit eternal, rather than just one more goal in the stream of club play? He was, at that moment, just a little Maradonesque — charmingly so.

It’s striking, too, because while in retrospect the showing of the t-shirt can fit firmly into one of the more remarkable drubbings in recent football history, at the time Balotelli could not have known that this would happen. Even if he was convinced that his team would win, I doubt that in his wildest dreams he would have predicted a 6-1 victory. And in fact instead Chicharito and Rooney could well instead have combined to come back and defeat Manchester City, in which case his  t-shirt would have ended up seeming a little off. Instead, of course, we were able to watch two groups — the Manchester City fans in the stands of Old Trafford, and the players on their team — express some of the most pugnacious self-satisfaction I’ve seen on display in a long time. The t-shirt was just the beginning of a long, long game at Old Trafford.

There’s a moment in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait when, as we watching him on the field, Zidane tells us that once in his life — and only once — he was playing and suddenly knew, in advance, precisely what would happen: that he would score a goal. He knew how he would do it, and then he did it. Balotelli’s t-shirt somehow makes us think the he had a similar certainty. That he was so well prepared for the moment is both alarming and delightful.

The thing is, there’s something rather universal about the sentiment expressed on the shirt — except that most of the time we (like Charlie Brown) repeat those words not because we’ve just had something wonderful happen to us, but the opposite. You might imagine the same t-shirt worn by some particularly beleaguered goalie: he could pull up his shirt every time some terrible defending, or worse, sent the ball streaming into his net. But the fact Balotelli took perhaps the most profound and universal of human questions “Why Me?” and turned it into a festival of self-celebration, is perhaps what makes this so memorable.

Of all the answers to Balotelli’s question I saw, perhaps the best came from Supriya Nair in Mumbai: “oh, darling. if not you, then whom?” Here’s to the strange  certainty that convinced Balotelli that he would print up and wear that t-shirt. Here’s to a gesture that made us pause, for a second, this Sunday: that made us wonder, for a second, about his sanity — and therefore our own.

Why English Football Will Adopt the NFL’s Rooney Rule

PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor

Early last month, senior executives from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the League Managers’ Association, the Football Association (FA), the Football League and the Premier League met with Cyrus Mehri, an American lawyer who, along with the late Johnnie Cochran and a labor economist, Janice Madden, drafted and successfully petitioned the National Football League (NFL) to adopt the “Rooney Rule,” the requirement that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for any head-coaching vacancy. PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor, who invited Mehri to speak, favors bringing the Rooney Rule to English football to increase the number of black and minority ethnics considered for and ultimately hired as managers.

Response to the meeting was swift and varied widely. While many agree that the number of black managers and coaches is surprisingly few, there is little agreement on how to address the issue or, as some have argued, whether any disparity exists at all. What may have been lost in the debate, however, are the clues that the decision has already been made, with the remaining point of discussion only being when and how the policy will be implemented.

Named after Dan Rooney, the chairman of the committee appointed by the NFL to review potentially discriminatory hiring practices, the Rooney Rule was ratified voluntarily by the thirty-two franchise owners in 2002. Under considerable public pressure, as well as the threat of legal action by Cochran and Mehri, the owners agreed to implement the rule the following year. The impact was immediate; within nine years, nineteen blacks had been named as head coaches for American football teams, and both coaches competing in the 2007 Super Bowl were African-American.

As early as 2003, a number of former players, such as Viv Anderson, England’s first black international, John Barnes and Luther Blissett, formed a group allied with the PFA and began petitioning for more black coaches and managers. Ten years earlier, Keith Alexander had become the first black to be appointed when he hired as manager for Lincoln City FC. But five years later, when Paul Ince became the first British-born black manager of a Premier League side, he was only the third to manage a professional league club.

While there have been 33 appointments since the 1992-93 season (apportioned amongst 17 individual managers), only two blacks are currently managing, Chris Hughton at Birmingham City and Chris Powell at Charlton Athletic. And a number of observers—within the sport, the media and amongst fans—have questioned whether the lack of black managers is a direct result of institutionalised racism.

That racism was once rife in English football is indisputable; in his memoir, First Among Unequals, Anderson wrote of bananas thrown on the pitch and hearing racist slurs when he first began playing. And though often rare now—as well as illegal in the UK—BME players have been subjected to racial abuse as recently as the 2011/12 season.

In 2008, some within the game began urging that the Rooney Rule be adopted in English football. Chief amongst those were blacks who felt they had been denied opportunities to even interview for open managerial vacancies. The most recent push for parity, however, began in earnest earlier this year.

Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland, two researchers at Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent, published the results of a survey of 1,000 fans, professional players, referees, coaches and managers. In their study, Why aren’t there more black football managers?, Cashmore and Cleland reported that more than 50% of the respondents believed that racism existed in football’s top ranks, and fully a third supported the adoption of a “British” Rooney Rule.

And in March, during an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, Taylor publicly signaled his intent when he said:

All I can think of is that if things don’t start to improve we’ll look at a rule that demands that clubs have to at least have a good selection and include former black players—fully qualified—as coaches. Our job is to try and get them in the first place fully qualified then there’s no excuse not to interview them, and, then, to get them involved with the interview process.

Several months earlier, the FA had replaced the FA Coaches Association with the Licensed Coaches’ Club, addressing one of the common reasons Taylor cited that is often given for the lack of non-white managers—fully qualifying candidates. Developed to ensure that coaches kept their training and qualifications current, the Licensed Coaches’ Club was also established to ensure that persons interested in coaching—at any level of the game—gained the proper qualifications.

Over the summer, the FA launched a second component of its broader initiative; an equality drive aimed specifically at promoting coaching opportunities to black and minority ethnic (BME) communities. Coach, a film produced by the FA, is specific in its intent: to increase the number of black and Asian coaches in management positions, spotlighting both the professional and grass roots game.

At the film’s premiere at Wembley Stadium, FA Chairman David Bernstein commented, “the football family recognises the underrepresentation at the top level.” “Hopefully,” he went on to add, “today is the start of redressing that imbalance.” But Lord Herman Ouseley, the Chair of Kick It Out, the PFA/FA campaign established to bolster equality and inclusion in football, addressed what is likely one of the issue’s most significant factors when he said, “it’s important that football is showing to the world in this country how it can lead.”

Because absent from many of the discussions is an acknowledgement that English football has become a lucrative global enterprise. In addition to advertising, ticket sales, naming rights and merchandising, broadcasting rights—reportedly £1,4bn/US$2,17bn for the 2012/13 international rights alone—now constitute a substantial portion of revenue for the twenty premier league clubs. The Manchester United fan base, for example, extends outside of the UK to millions worldwide, and other clubs, such as Arsenal and Manchester City, are also looking to significantly expand their numbers of international supporters.

Setting aside the debate as to whether BMEs are intentionally excluded from coaching positions, the perception amongst a significant number is that they are, and multinational enterprises must strive to avoid any hint of bias and discrimination—as well as the associated adverse publicity. Correspondingly, how English football is perceived vis-à-vis its hiring practices can have a direct impact on its revenue and profit.

Additionally, while the debate has largely been shaped around the sizeable number of black players in the league, the focus of the current PFA and FA initiatives is on British-born black and minority ethnic groups. On the March 5 Live programme, Taylor remarked:

I find it astonishing that we can import the likes of Jean Tigana and Ruud Gullit and there’s no problem, but our own lads who have grown up in this country have not been given a chance to be fairly represented.

Considering that British-born BMEs only constitute 15% of the players in the top division—with a combined average of 18% in the Football League—Taylor’s statement is worth noting, particularly given the higher percentages, which are so often quoted. (The higher figure, currently 28%, represents both British and foreign-born players.) It is conceivable, then, just as their NFL counterparts concluded in 2002, that football’s governing bodies have determined that it is more prudent to formalise its hiring practices before they are legislated.

Notwithstanding the moral and societal implications, it has become an imperative that British football reflects the sports’ diversity, both on the field and in the back office. Because in what has become a £7,7bn/US$12bn entertainment industry—one that contributes substantially to the larger economy of Britain—English Football must maintain its competitiveness as “the world’s most favourite league,” as well as its appeal to an increasingly global audience. Adopting the Rooney Rule, which is neither affirmative action nor a requirement that BME candidates be hired, may simply be good business.