ADVANCING INSTITUTIONAL EQUITY IN CHILDREN’S FOOTBALL
11 SEPTEMBER, 2023
As the phrase “Representation matters” gains prominence in our society, it’s crucial to delve into its significance and understand the role that power plays in its dynamic.
In the context of children in sports, “representation” refers to the notion that children are more likely to engage in sports if they see people who look like them achieve success, and if the barriers that impede their participation due to their background or origin are eliminated.
The notion of representation challenges the historical status quo that was created to favour a specific group: white, cisgender and able-bodied males. For minoritised groups, this phrase provides a sense of empowerment. However, it is essential to acknowledge that the phrase “Representation matters” would simply not exist if obstacles were not present and enduring within institutions.
Promoting inclusivity in sports requires addressing the systemic obstacles that prevent players from diverse backgrounds from participating. At Inclusive Iceland, we strongly advise athletics institutions to work with our specialists to develop a well-informed action plan to address systemic inequality, advance equity, and truly celebrate the representation of all identities. We tackle this by way of:
- Identifying inequity and assisting your organization to understand how discrimination affects minoritized people and groups
- Addressing structural issues at their root in order to develop a strong, equitable core that goes beyond promoting representation and celebrating diversity
- Developing a clear and constructive method to build more equitable initiatives, programs, and institutions
This requires actions such as providing minoritized players with the necessary support and resources, building institutions with a diverse leadership team including coaches and managers, and most importantly, eliminating discriminatory practices against marginalized players. It is equally necessary to prioritize the voices and experiences of those in our institutions who have been historically marginalized. This includes creating opportunities for those individuals to lead and make decisions, as well as providing support and resources to help them succeed.
Discrimination in sports
Discrimination within sports is often viewed as a distinct problem and a personal moral failing, disconnected from broader societal issues and institutions. However, if you closely follow professional sports of any kind, including the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship and FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments, you will see that this is not the case. Racial inequities and discrimination within the public sphere of sports are very much a reflection of the institutions themselves, which allow such discrimination to continue, either through inadequate measures or total inaction.
Despite the success and impressive skills of numerous talented athletes from diverse backgrounds, racial discrimination remains prevalent in sports. Take, for example, tennis champion Serena Williams, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, basketball legend Michael Jordan, and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, to name a few. Football, too, has seen representation and discrimination throughout history, from Brazilian football icon Pelé‘s era, beginning in 1956, to present-day stars such as Kylian Mbappé, Marcus Rashford, and Raheem Sterling.
It is essential to acknowledge that such discrimination is not limited to existing within sports associations but also extends to and impacts spectators of all ages. Discrimination in sports leaves children who are fascinated by a player’s talent to also observe how these players are treated differently than their peers. Allowing such mistreatment to continue unhampered not only normalises and perpetuates discriminatory behaviour but also isolates and pushes racially minoritised children away from participating in sports. As such, in order to prevent our efforts for representation and inclusion from being tarnished by discrimination, the issue must be addressed directly and on a systemic level.
Discrimination targeting Black footballers
Throughout the years, various football clubs have unfortunately been involved in numerous incidents of racism. In his book, “Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empires” (2018), author and activist Akala highlights some examples of this. He describes the mistreatment of Black players by managers at Aston Villa F.C., Chelsea F.C. Youth members accusing former coaches of regular abuse, and Rhian Brewster, an England World Cup winner, speaking out about the racial abuse he endured while playing for Liverpool F.C.. On his ordeal, Brewster publicly expressed his disappointment at the lack of action taken.
Unfortunately, more recent examples of racism in football also exist, such as the public backlash at players taking a knee to support anti-racism efforts in 2020, England’s loss of the 2021 European Cup final resulting in three Black players being targeted, and an incident where derogatory names were hurled at Real Madrid C.F. footballer Vinícius Júnior in Spain this past May 2023. These incidents shed light on the immense burden and psychological pressure that successful players face. They also highlight the pressing need for institutions to take action and implement initiatives to address and prevent racism in football.
How does Iceland’s football culture differ from others?
Like many nations, Iceland highly values the sport as a platform for children’s social development. Recreational programs are encouraged to help children explore their interests and talents, regardless of whether they pursue them as a career or simply for leisure. As such, equality programs are integrated into children’s after-school participation in Iceland, taking into account factors such as financial capabilities, family support, bullying, and more. However, when such barriers are combined, children with a foreign background may be more likely to experience limitations in participating fully.
Overall, the football culture in Iceland is heavily influenced by global football culture. Despite limitations, Iceland boasts role-model players of Black and mixed heritage on its national team. However, the country has had instances of players displaying inappropriate behaviour, such as abuse towards women or racism. Additionally, as football is a popular sport for parents and their children to participate in, there has been a public conversation regarding spectator behaviour, specifically among parents who come to support their children during competitions, and the ensuing inaction from authorities.
Recent events, such as the N1 Football Tournament this past summer, have highlighted the harmful impact of negative attitudes, actions, and inactions by adults on children. Reports have shown that children of mixed heritage have been subjected to derogatory name-calling by their peers. The frequency and similarity of these incidents indicate a deep-rooted culture of neglect and a lack of institutional measures to develop equity practices. Though the stories shared are individual, they indicate a much larger problem. We must ensure that our systems work methodically to address the problem at hand. We need to conduct a thorough analysis of how we can establish effective collaborations and measurements. As noted earlier, the inequalities prevalent in football go beyond the sport and are indicative of the workplace, traditions, policies, and practices that we follow. This requires a successful shift towards social change.
If we aim to celebrate diversity through representation, it is crucial that we work towards sustaining talent. This means focusing on measures that can help retain diverse talent in the long run, not by focusing on individuals but by a clear analysis of systems that have created barriers for those of minoritised identities.
It is clear that representation alone does not eliminate inequity. In fact, without paying attention to and addressing discrimination in sports, the discrimination that is already present in institutions is only exacerbated by the increase of diverse players.
Representation does indeed matter, however, it is apparent that having diverse representation in sports alone does not suffice in eliminating inequity. In fact, if not recognised and adequately addressed, existing discrimination within institutions can worsen with the influx of diverse players. As a wise individual once remarked, inaction can be as detrimental as oppression. Ensuring the well-being and safety of marginalised players demands the complete eradication of all forms of discrimination that obstruct their health and prosperity. This is work that involves equity at the core and is built on a tradition that fosters respect.
To read more about the N1 Football Tournament incident in Icelandic, click here.
To access an English translation of the article, click here.
To read an English translation of the article “Reasons Why I Stopped Refereeing” by
Brynjar Birgisson, click here.