By Jonathan Ervine
(School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Bangor University)
On 20th May 2015, a conference at Southampton Solent University about ‘Football as Inclusive Leisure’ brought together scholars, educators and football industry professionals for a highly stimulating day of activities.
The opening addresses provided a sense of both progress that has been made when it comes to tackling discrimination within football and also the challenges that remain. Roisin Wood from the organization Kick it Out described how many English clubs are becoming increasingly sensitive to themes such as diversity and inclusion, but observed that online abuse aimed at footballers on social networks often reaches an alarming level.
In the second plenary address, Ben Carrington from the University of Texas argued that there is a real need to discuss what inclusion means when it is evoked in a footballing context. Indeed, he felt that there was a need to consider focusing on transformation rather than inclusion and to pay attention to the politics on which discrimination is based. In a thought-provoking discussion of the on field clash between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez in October 2011, Carrington argued that we at times see evidence of paradoxical and patriotic forms of anti-racism in the UK that seem to simultaneously challenge and re-assert racial hierarchies.
This initial plenary was followed by a series of parallel sessions that included a workshop led by EduMove that focused on how football can be used as an educational tool. At the same time, a session about Digital Football Cultures explored how internet technology and video games are playing a role in re-shaping what it is to experience football and be involved in the match day experience. Questions about how fans interact with football were simultaneously being explored in a session about Football Fandom and Spectatorship, and also in another panel entitled Football Beyond Leisure that examined inclusivity from the perspective of gay players and fans, as well as people affected by learning disabilities.
The afternoon parallel sessions explored similar themes and one strand involved presentations from students and academics who help to run football projects with minority groups in order to challenge exclusion. A second Digital Football Cultures strand examined the notions of progress that are evident when it comes to both how the media covers women’s football and how football itself seeks to address racism. Conference organizer Stefan Lawrence argued that a closer examination of English football – on the pitch, in the stands and crucially also in the boardroom – suggests that older colour-based forms of racism cannot be as easily confined to the past as is often thought.
The afternoon session on Football, Fandom and Spectatorship examined debates about belonging and identity that concern players and fans of immigrant descent in a range of different national and international contexts. Inclusion and acceptance again came to the fore in the screening of Ian McDonald’s documentary Brighton Bandits that follows a season in the life of one of the leading teams in an English league that is specifically for teams composed of gay players. In introducing the film, McDonald argued that homophobia in football has long been a taboo within football during a time when the sport has taken visible steps to tackle other forms of discrimination.
After a this packed programme of talks, discussions and hands-on sessions, the venue for the conference shifted from Southampton Solent University to Southampton Football Club’s St. May’s Stadium. A guided tour was followed by the conference dinner and an after-dinner question and answer session with Lawrie McMenemy, former Southampton manager and assistant to Graham Taylor during his time in charge of the English national team. McMenemy provided a much fascinating insight into his long and highly successful coaching and managerial career, and also discussed how his retirement from involvement in the professional game has led him to reflect on sport’s inclusive potential through his work to support and promote the Special Olympics in the United Kingdom. Like many who spoke during the main part of the conference, he was keen to focus on positive ways in which football can facilitate inclusion and has arguably become more inclusive. However, he also argued that the Special Olympics was a key example of an event that needs to receive greater support from government in order to enhance its potential to become a vehicle for promoting and achieving greater social inclusion.