For over a decade, not a single black referee has officiated in a Premier League game and in a country that depends on many talents of colour, there’s a wide gap to fill.
The lack of black people in the decision-making end of football in the English Premier League, is easily noticeable. Two of such positions are refereeing and managerial positions.
It is a rare sight to see a black manager in the league, and the man judging proceedings is hardly ever a person of colour.
Out of 28000 referees in the FA, there are 2000 BAME (Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic) referees.
With BAME referees being about 7% of the total number of referees in the FA, it is quite shocking that not a single one refereed a Premier League game last season. The process has been like this for over a decade since Uriah Rennie (the only BAME referee in EPL history) retired.
Currently, there is only one BAME referee in the top four English divisions, as most of them will only be found in the non-professional leagues and at grassroots level.
In 2012, the FA announced that it will facilitate the inclusion of BAME referees in the top tiers of the league. More reassuringly, it stated that at least 10% percent of top tier referees will be BAME by 2016.
The Premier League has failed to live up to its words, as five years after the period set for the actualization of its declaration, the story is still the same.
The non-inclusion of BAME referees begs many questions that need answers.
Could it be systemic? Are BAME referees seen as unintelligent and incapable of handling the pressure of decision-making at the top level?
According to Reuben Simon who was a Level 3 official until 2014, the problem is an unconscious bias at the top. The people at the top of affairs are used to not seeing a black person in those positions such that it has become naturally ingrained in them to shut them out.
Simon’s story corroborates this theory, as he has his fair share of the system’s ills. In 2009, he questioned the FA about the lack of BAME referees in the top leagues. About a month after that, he received a mail from Middlesex County Referees Association chairman, Doug Douglas, citing his mishandling of a game.
Douglas’ email stated that Simon used the ‘F’ word in a match and he questioned his suitability for senior appointments. What ensued afterwards further confirmed the system’s ills to Simon. As Douglas could not give up his source despite relentless pursuance of clarity by Simon. No one could corroborate the events stated in the mail till date.
Unconscious racism is a thing and this can be directly associated with the refereeing situation in the Premier League. Direct Racism is still a bad side of the game that we see with the players, and this could also have an effect on the presence of black referees in the Premier League.
In England, almost every referee assessor is white, and they are from generations that have unconscious racism ingrained in them. They will always fill the system with their bias until a conscious change is made and there is diversity at this level, which will facilitate inclusion.
There is also the issue stemming from lack of interest, which is systematic. Because there are not enough black referees at the top level, there are no role models for young black kids to look up to in that path. Over the years, this has reduced the interest for this profession among the black community.
If the BAME community do not feel welcomed in the ecosystem, it is only natural for them to lose interest. If the likelihood of success is so low, not because of their competence level but their race – they will continue to stay off the path.
The FA must put words into action, according to Uriah Rennie. It is not enough to say they want to increase the percentage of BAME referees, they have to start the diversity from the top, especially for referee assessors.
The change in narrative has to begin from the boardroom.
According to reports, the FA downgraded its 10% BAME inclusion in 2018. This is a move that screams unreadiness on the path of the FA, and they need to do better. The FA’s lack of effort in correcting this issue can be further seen when you realize that majority of the small number of BAME referees across all level are white Eastern Europeans.
As the calls against racism gets louder on some fronts, the inclusion of black referees to a league with a large percentage of black footballers will just be appropriate.
There won’t be a better time!