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Old 27th January 2015, 14:00   #1
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Default Heather Rabbatts: football should have handled the Ched Evans case better

Heather Rabbatts: football should have handled the Ched Evans case better

In an exclusive interview one of the FA’s directors admits the game must step up to the challenges of increasing diversity and equality at all levels

Owen Gibson
The Guardian
Monday 26 January 2015 21.59 GMT

Recent controversies involving racism and sexism have cast “a very big shadow” over football according to the FA director Heather Rabbatts, who also believes that the sport should have handled the Ched Evans affair differently. Launching a report designed to measure football’s progress on encouraging diversity, she promises the FA will learn lessons from the fallout from efforts by Evans, a convicted rapist, to return to the game on his release from prison.

“As we saw from the reactions of fans, the public and commercial sponsors Ched Evans divided people down the line. Fundamentally the issue of the conduct of players exists between clubs and players,” says Rabbatts, who was one of two independent nonexecutive directors appointed to the FA board in December 2011 and remains the only woman and the only one from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background. “But it does seem to me that, as we go forward, we all need to think about our respective roles. I don’t think football had one of our proudest moments with Ched Evans.”

Football has come to be the lens through which diverse and problematic issues, from the rehabilitation of sex offenders to workplace sexism and casual racism, have come to be refracted in a fast moving, polarised landscape.

“We all recognised that Ched Evans posed a real singular challenge to football. Opinion was divided,” she says. “But it also showed that football inhabits a particular public space and, rightly so in my view, comes under a [high] level of public scrutiny.”

Asked whether the FA should have taken a position earlier on the Evans affair as the debate raged about his return to the game after being released on licence after serving two and a half years of a five-year sentence, Rabbatts said football “should have had a think about it and I think the game will now definitely think about it”.

Rabbatts is leading an FA group looking at what should happen when private communications become public, as in the case of sexist emails sent by Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive, and offensive texts exchanged by Malky Mackay when Cardiff City’s manager.

In the former the FA ruled it could not take action. Following a six-month investigation the same is likely to prove true in the Mackay case. That group, set to report by March, will now also consider the impact of the Evans case.

Rabbatts, who is also chair of the FA’s inclusion advisory board (IAB), says Evans may have been better off pursuing his appeal to the Criminal Cases Review Commission before seeking re-employment. “I don’t think anybody feels, looking back, that Ched Evans got the best possible advice. He is pursuing an appeal and he may have been better served by waiting for that appeal to be heard before trying to come back into what was always going to be a very public re-entrance to the game.”

Rabbatts suggests the code of conduct drawn up by the FA for England players at the height of the John Terry case could offer a template for clubs. She also recognises that the FA, as the game’s governing body, has a role to play.

“I understand it was strange for the man in the street. The FA did put out a statement early on saying it had no locus in terms of whether a player can or can’t play for a club. But in those moments, should the FA – with others – at least have a perspective that everyone is clear about? I think that’s what we’re trying to get to now.”

While the Professional Footballers’ Association highlighted its responsibility to Evans in speaking out forcefully for his right to re-employment, Rabbatts says another side of its work – educating young players at club academies – should provide further food for thought in the game. “Footballers and the world they live in is peculiarly closeted. I think they need to have the insight to understand how to best protect themselves.

“These are young guys who can be earning, even in the lower leagues, significant money compared to their peers,” she says, drawing on her experience running Millwall. “I think we will all go back and reflect on how better we can support education. Ultimately what you want is prevention.”

Rabbatts, who has also worked in senior executive roles in local government and broadcasting, insists the game as a whole has made progress on diversity since she was appointed to the FA board in 2011. That has partly been a function of the fact that, as she notes ruefully, the “equality and diversity” issues that once may have been relegated to “any other business” at the end of a board meeting have assumed centre stage with depressing regularity.

“Everybody realises we have to step up but in terms of the report we’re publishing my sense is that for the first time, beyond the words, there has been a step up in commitment from everybody. We have got to grapple with these issues and there’s a real danger to everyone in football if we don’t. To that extent there’s collective commitment and energy to start to make a difference.”

Key priorities named in the new report include a vaguely Orwellian promise to continue to roll out the FA’s “mandatory education” programmes for those who have breached regulations – the Wigan Athletic chairman, Dave Whelan, will be one beneficiary – and the Premier League’s pledge to expand “unconscious bias” schemes.

There are also a raft of proposals aimed at boosting equality among executives, coaches, administrators and backroom staff. But the proposals will not go far enough for some frustrated by years of inaction. In words once used by Kick It Out’s chairman, Lord Ouseley, to describe its stance during the Terry and Luis Suárez affairs, there is a perception that the FA has a natural tendency to disappear from view when difficult issues emerge.

Too often these major controversies have highlighted outdated attitudes across the game. Many expected Greg Dyke, the FA chairman who famously called the BBC “hideously white”, to be more outspoken on equality issues.

But Rabbatts says there are signs of a culture shift across the game. The Premier League’s clubs have signed up to new equalities standards designed to boost the number of BME coaches and administrators within the game. Together with an FA commitment to fast-track the best and brightest young coaches from a BME background, Rabbatts says they can start to make progress towards correcting the shameful imbalance on training pitches and in boardrooms. “Everybody has recognised that some of the big events that impact on football can be avoided only if we change the systems of how football is run,” says Rabbatts.

“That is what this is about. Whether it’s about getting black ex-players on to boards so that diversity is enshrined at the highest level or whether it’s about getting more coaches through the club licence system so we’ve got more of a talent pool of black managers – those are the practical interventions that try and shift the dial.”

Part of that is about ensuring that recruitment processes are “open and transparent” and that the jobs for the boys mentality that has pervaded football at all levels for too long is dismantled. But she thinks the Rooney rule — the US system mandating at least one coach from a BME background on the shortlist for every job — is something of a red herring.

“Within the report are programmes to accelerate representation across the game, in which clearly black managers and coaches are crucial,” she says.

“If we start to get black managers and coaches it will encourage more people to say they can apply for other roles within football. But you can’t borrow a solution from another country.”

The IAB has had its own issues. The former Birmingham City player Michael Johnson stepped down after it emerged he had made homophobic comments in the past, while the Amateur Swimming Association’s chairman, Edward Lord, was forced out after hitting out publicly at football’s inaction. But Rabbatts says it has already proved its worth. She even detects signs of hope for the FA council – often seen as the last bastion of white, male blazerdom. “For the first time ever at FA Council last week we had Rimla Akhtar, a Muslim woman, and Paul Elliott speaking to the entire body of the council about the work they’re doing and about the importance of some of the training for council members around some of these issues. Just the fact they did that helps shift attitudes.”

In the stands the number of incidents reported within grounds has increased by 200% but the report claims that is due to a new Kick It Out app that has made it far easier to report and sanction individuals.

Among governing bodies and in the boardrooms of professional clubs the contrast with the players on the pitch is particularly stark: one study last year found that less than 1% of directors were from a BME background.

“I sit on boards elsewhere and I’m often the only mixed race person in the room. Occasionally I’m the only woman. That battle about getting more women around the table has been fought for 25 years. It’s coming through but it’s taking time,” says Rabbatts, who attempts to walk a fine line in trying to agitate for change from inside the system.

“Football is not alone here but it does have ground to make up. When you look at fans you have every race, women, people with disabilities. So it beholds us to say it’s got to be run differently.”
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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