Two weeks ago, Danny Rose gave a widely-reported interview on racism in football which culminated in an upsetting confession from the Spurs fullback. “I’ve got five or six more years left in football and I just can’t wait to see the back of it. . . I just want to get out of it,” Rose admitted, suggesting that the stress of playing at the highest level as a black person has become so great that it saps the joy out of the game itself. This was not the first time the Spurs left-back has made headlines for speaking frankly about something that is troubling him: last summer, he told the media how he was struggling with depression and that England, not Tottenham, was the place that he was able to work through his problems and find support; one year before that, he gave opinions about Spurs’ managerial and administrative strategies that some saw as out of line. However, present in Rose’s dismay at the proliferation of racism in football was a new note of resignation. It is rare and heartbreaking to hear that somebody who has dedicated the greater part of his youth and young adulthood to earning a place among the best footballers in the world is now disgusted by the game he loved so much.
While racism is often thought of as a relatively isolated danger in today’s Premier League (less so in other countries and leagues), it is still pervasive enough to cause massive harm over the course of a player’s career. One way to understand this is to remember that racist incidents do not only impact the target of the abuse, but also have secondary impacts on other members of the targeted group, and recent years have seen plenty of racial aggression with the potential for repercussions across the league. The Guardian just shared an investigation into racism from the lowest levels of British football to the Premier League, and it provides a useful revision course: in this season alone, a Spurs fan threw a banana peel at the feet of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mo Salah has been targeted by anti-Arab and Islamophobic chants numerous times, and several other clubs’ supporters have been recorded chanting racist abuse. A useful example to consider is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, since it hits particularly close to home. The club successfully tracked down and banned the fan who threw the banana peel, but by then, the damage had been done. While Aubameyang handled the incident with composure, it must have affected not only him, but black players for both sides, including Danny Rose. When race is weaponized as a tool of football rivalry, it degrades the game and harms players universally, not only those on the opposing team.
The club has a duty to treat Danny Rose and other black players with respect not just on the pitch, but also off of it. Tottenham’s historical identity as a club and present identity as a borough is bound up with immigrants and people of color: the Y-word nickname for Spurs supporters arose from anti-Semitism directed at the club around the World War II era, and the first black British military officer, Walter Tull, played for Tottenham in the early 20th century. Present-day Tottenham, as I have written about before, is a borough of immigrants and people of color, populations who have had a fraught relationship with the club in recent years. More broadly, the club has benefitted greatly from the membership and sacrifice of black supporters and players. Thus, beyond the universal moral imperative to reject racism and expel it from every arena of life, the club has a unique responsibility to the black people in its community and on its pitch who may lack the attention that Danny Rose has found in recent months, but who are impacted nevertheless.
Danny Rose said he can’t wait to see the back of football, but I am not ready to see the back of Danny Rose (unless he’s streaking toward Man City’s goal), and I hope that the club will, either publicly or behind the scenes, address the concerns that he raised. Perhaps they could hire him on after he retires to oversee efforts to support players’ mental wellbeing and anti-racism efforts at the club. Taking him seriously means more than just offering sympathy. The club, and the game in general, should begin to ask for the input of black players and managers on how football can do better. It would be admirable and just if the club ushered in this new era with a distinctly anti-racist message, going beyond typical displays of support and searching out ways that the club can associate itself with an inclusive vision of football. This could be a combination of appreciation events for under-represented supporters, better club branding that emphasizes the history of black people in the club and community (the White Hart Lane photo book from a few years ago features an awful lot of white faces), and even more charitable involvement with the black community around the new stadium—although the club has worked very hard in this respect. On the occasion of Danny Rose’s comments, some official message from the club might have been unusual, but could have effectively aligned the club with Rose, rather than his antagonists.
Most encouragingly, both Harry Kane and Mauricio Pochettino have promised to stand with black players and confirmed that they would withdraw their team if a player were racially abused in a match. This is a massive commitment to make, and one that Spurs should be proud of. Too often the language around racism in football puts the responsibility on black players to grin and bear it, exacting their revenge on the pitch. While Raheem Sterling’s defiant celebration in Montenegro is satisfying and commendable, black players should know that they aren’t obligated to continue the match in the face of racist abuse, and that although bearing abuse is an act of grace and courage, it is never their responsibility to get on with the game when confronted by forces far more powerful than football. The debate about how black players should react offers insight into a broader question about how much agency players have, or ought to have, in their roles as employees of the club. Though less violent than the NFL, association football is not immune to the attitude that the game’s diverse stars exist to entertain fans and answer to the screaming masses that ring their field of play. When Harry Kane, a white star and captain of club and country, and Pochettino, among the most respected young managers in the game, sign on to “back [black players] in whatever they wanted to do,” as Kane aptly put it, it sends a signal that the players are taking control of their relationship to fans, and if Daniel Levy can put the weight of the club and its supporters behind this position, it will be a good start.