“As a kid, I had people pushing me because I was brown,” Helen Grant, the Minister for Sport, told her audience of SJA members, media colleagues, students, sports officials and other guests.
“The person on the receiving end feels absolutely dreadful. You can’t imagine the damage it does.”
Grant was one of four MPs attending the SJA’s first event of 2015, a Parliamentary Question Time to quiz the three main, UK-wide parties’ spokespeople on their sports policies ahead of the General Election in May.
Inevitably, following the racist incident on the Paris Metro the week before, the issue of racism in sport, and especially in football, drew disgust and condemnation from Grant, the Conservative MP for Maidstone and The Weald, Labour’s Clive Efford and Manchester LibDem John Leech.
And the panel, chaired by David Walker, the sports editor of the Daily Mirror and SJA chairman, seemed to reach some cross-party consensus in their response to supplementary questions that some form of positive discrimination – dubbed the “Rooney Rule” after the equalities legislation passed in the United States – could be necessary to get more black and minority ethnic players into coaching and management jobs in British football.
Grant demanded “zero tolerance” for displays of racism of the sort she had herself encountered as a schoolgirl growing up in Carlisle. “I saw those pictures last week and was absolutely disgusted. This incident proves there’s a fair way to go.”
She commended Chelsea, the club to whom the Metro racists had attached themselves, “The club has moved swiftly and sternly.” But adopting full-on politician-mode when asked from the floor about the manner in which Chelsea had dealt with club captain John Terry when he was banned for four games after being found to have used racist language to an opposing player during a game, Grant said, “All racism needs to be dealt with absolute zero tolerance.” Her stern gaze made it clear that some degree of double-standards had been in place.
Efford, the MP for Eltham, has seen many changes in fans behaviour over his years as a Millwall supporter, but on this matter he backed up his Tory opposite number: “The law of the land doesn’t stop at the white line on the football pitch.”
He and Leech both called for stronger sanctions against players found guilty of racist conduct, Efford suggesting multiple game bans, as was applied to Luis Suarez, while the Manchester City-supporting Leech said he wanted clubs with racist fans to have fines based on TV revenue, rather than the relatively modest loss of gate receipts as has happened when Uefa has forced clubs to play behind closed doors.
Around 60 people had gathered in the Wilson Room – named after the former Prime Minister, rather than the sporting legend of the Wizard comic – for this free-of-charge event, sponsored by BT Sport, and organised by SJA committee member Mary Fitzhenry. It was staged within the committee rooms of Portcullis House courtesy of former Labour sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe, who also attended.
The topics were as wide-ranging and varied as you might hope, from the funding formula for elite and grassroots sport, to how to handle international governing bodies such as Fifa (“corrupt” and “not fit for purpose”, according to Leech) and British sporting influence abroad; from London 2012’s Olympic legacy, to the international implications of the 2018 World Cup being staged in Russia; and the possible criminalisation of sports doping.
But even an over-running one-hour of discussion was not enough, for the audience or, it seemed, the panel.
As you might expect when you get three party politicians into a room together, not everything was agreed. Efford was keen to criticise Grant and Leech’s coalition government for cutting £620 million of funding to sports school partnerships, which he linked to a troubling “flat-lining” in participation figures so soon after the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Efford called it, “A disaster – a golden legacy destroyed by this government.”
Grant refused to accept this. “There are 1.6 million more people doing sport now than when we won the Olympic bid in 2005,” she said, choosing her timescales carefully. “That’s not flat-lining in my opinion.”
But Grant did concede that recent falls in swimming participation in particular were troubling, and she issued a warning to that sport’s governing body: “The figures were a disappointment. The ASA know they have to step it up, they know they need to do more.”
With the UK remaining one of the few leading European sporting nations which has not criminalised doping in sport, two of the three politicians suggested that their party might consider such measures (though don’t expect to see it as a Labour or LibDem manifesto commitment any time soon), and even Grant, a lawyer by profession, refusing to rule it out.
There has been a complete change of personnel since the SJA last staged a party political Question Time, in 2010, before the previous General Election. Perhaps if the SJA were to stage a similar event again, in a couple of years’ time, we might be able to invite at least one of the same guests to resume where we left off.
- The SJA is the largest member organisation of sports media professionals in the world. Join us: Click here for more details
UPCOMING SJA EVENTS
Mon Mar 23: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, sponsored by BT Sport, at the Grand Connaught Rooms. Ticket booking details here
Wed Apr 1: BT Sport/SJA lunch with Olympic champion rower Andrew Triggs Hodge. Booking details here
Mon Apr 13: SJA Spring Golf Day, Wimbledon Park GC. Booking details here
Mon Sep 14: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill Golf Club