Brendon Batson on fighting racism in football
West Bromwich Albion legend and Kick It Out ambassador Brendon Batson warned there is still much more to be done if racism is to be driven out of football once and for all.
Batson has been at the forefront of the fight since his playing days at the Hawthorns in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
And while he acknowledges much has been achieved since, he insists there is still some way to go in establishing complete equality, particularly in the areas of coaching and administration.
“I am not looking to decry all of the successes but we know there is much more to be done,” said Batson.
“Why does there appear to be this lack of involvement in management or lack of interest from black players when 25 per cent of professional players are black?
“Where are the representations away from the playing fields in the other structures within the game?”
Batson loves football and has devoted most of his life toward changing it for the better.
In the 1970s and late 1980s, he was at the forefront of black players’ emergence in the game, most famously at West Bromwich Albion alongside Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham.
The trio endured verbal – and sometimes even physical – abuse on a weekly basis and ever since injury forced his early retirement, Batson has worked tirelessly to ensure others never had to experience the same.
A leading figure at the PFA and Kick It Out since its formation in 1993, Batson is currently a consultant to the FA on equality and heavily involved with the COACH bursary programme which seeks to get more black, Asian and ethnic minority coaches involved in the game.
On top of that, he also chairs the Professional Players Federation – a group which brings together sporting associations such as the PFA and its cricket and rugby counterparts – and heads up the voluntary organisation Sporting Equals.
“I’ve got enough on, certainly,” he admits in a typically understated manner. “I’m just pleased I can do the range of stuff I do.”
Since Batson retired as a player, the game has come a long way in dealing with the overt racial prejudice which once blighted it so badly.
The stories of that era and what he experienced have been told many times before: The insults, the chanting, the bananas thrown on the pitch – John Barnes famously and disdainfully backheeled the fruit back over the touchline – the National Front turning up at away games to hurl abuse as Batson, Cunningham and Regis stepped off the team coach.
To supporters of a younger generation, it seems almost unimaginable. Yet to Batson, 25 years old when he signed for Albion, it was a culture to which he had already long been exposed.
“Coming to England as a nine-year-old from Grenada is when I first began to experience racism,” he said.
“It grew into the game and reached a crescendo when I joined West Brom.
“I was maybe naive and thought there would be safety in numbers when I joined Cyrille and Laurie but, if anything, that made it worse.
“As far as the racists were concerned, seeing three black players playing in the top flight week in, week out incensed them even more.”
Batson had followed manager Ron Atkinson to The Hawthorns from Cambridge United.
“The only thing which increased was the volume,” he recalled. “We had been on the receiving end since we were schoolboys.
“I experienced it all the time. I played in the Sunday Parks League in London – which is a huge league – and you would get it there.
“We were getting abuse not just from a football point of view but in everyday life, whether it be on the Underground or places like that.”
Despite such experiences, Batson and many others fought back against the racists by the simplest means possible – they stood their ground.
“It is to the credit of my generation that black players responded by saying: ‘OK, see you next week, next month, next year,’” he said.
“It was not that we were insensitive to the abuse we received – our families would not come to see us play because of it – there was a lot of violence around the game at that time and if you were a black supporter, you were an easy target.
“But it never crossed our minds that we would be driven out.
“I’m not a great advocate of players walking off the field, but I will always defend their right to do so if they wish.
“But I would much prefer they stand their ground and say: ‘Right, it is up to the authorities to do something.’
“I can’t think of many other professions where management or authorities would not be looking to take steps against such abuse – apart from football.
“It is something which has been going on for a long time and we feel football has done a lot in addressing the overt racism.
“I can remember graffiti being on the walls of grounds – nothing was done about it.
“The National Front were abusing us when we were getting off the coach – nothing was done about it.
“A lot has been done now through rules and regulations, codes of conduct and things like that.
“Other governing bodies like UEFA and FIFA take it far more seriously, although their punishment often does not reflect the crime.
“But at least we are seeing action being taken. There is a protocol in place for anything on the field and off-field too.
“A referee can take players off the field if he feels the club aren’t doing enough to address the problem of overt racism.”
Another way Batson, Regis and Cunningham responded to the abuse they received was by letting their work on the pitch do the talking.
“I was lucky to get to Albion when I did, in terms of timing,” said Batson, a formidable right-back who had begun his career at Arsenal. “I had a manager who believed in me, who gave me the chance – though I had to prove myself.
“I was fortunate in joining a team which was really on the up and the playing style suited me down to the ground.
“People talk about us not winning anything, but it is all relative. We had one terrific season and then the team broke up. Laurie Cunningham went off, as anybody would, to join Real Madrid.
“We lost Lenny Cantello to Bolton and Tony Brown was at the end of a marvellous career.
“We were a team for just that one season – but it was a fabulous season.
“I don’t think the other lads paid much attention to the general abuse. They knew we were getting a lot of it.
“They could hear the chants and see the bananas being thrown onto the pitch, stuff like that.
“The beauty of that team is we were winning more than we were losing. It was always a good way to respond to the racists, by puffing your chest out and letting them know what the score was.”
After a knee injury cut short his playing career in 1982, Batson joined the PFA as a senior administrator, beginning his journey in becoming a key campaigner for equality in the game.
He is rightly proud of the advances made in the three decades since, but also keen to emphasise the work which still needs to be done.
While the overt racism he experienced as a player has now almost been eradicated in Britain, discrimination still permeates in other areas of the game – most notably in management, where the lack of bosses from black or ethnic minority backgrounds has moved to the centre of the debate.
Back in October, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho added fuel to the debate when he repeated the long-time claim of Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore that if coaches are good enough, they will get there, no matter their race.
Batson disagrees and has long campaigned for an English version of the Rooney Rule – which has changed the face of the NFL in the United States – to be introduced.
Under the Rooney Rule, NFL franchises are required to interview at least one black or ethnic minority candidate when looking to fill a coaching position. And while Batson agrees it would be tough to transfer directly to the Premier League, he seems no harm in exploring it.
“We are not saying we need to follow it slavishly; what we are saying is can we learn from these experiences?” he said. “The NFL said this was the right thing to do because we don’t know if we are getting the best candidates for these positions.
“It doesn’t guarantee you a job, but what it does do is put you in front of a selection panel and gives you the chance to showcase what you are about.
“We all know when you hire someone it is not necessarily the person who you first think of when you look at CVs – it might be someone else who has a bit more about themselves and convinces the panel they are the best person for the job.
“If you have the right qualifications, you should be given the opportunity to interview.”
That is where Batson’s work with the FA and the COACH bursary programme comes in as it supports young black and ethnic minority coaches financially, allowing them to complete their qualifications before being placed at professional clubs.
“What we should acknowledge is that, particularly since 1993 when Kick it Out was first founded, the game has moved on enormously,” he added.
“We should acknowledge that success, not just of Kick it Out but of campaigns like Show Racism the Red Card up in the north-east and other regional schemes.
“It has all added up to mean the overt racism which we experienced as black players of the 70s is now something of the past.
“But now we need to take the next step in asking how do we inspire those black coaches, who want a career in coaching, that it is a level playing field and not a white-only landscape?
“At the moment we have not got enough and that is not just in coaching.
“When you look at a lot of club staffs they are not representative of society because a lot of people from the black community do not think football is for them. They don’t see the chances out there.”
Batson’s work in the game was recently recognised by the award of an OBE in the New Year Honours List, meaning that somewhere in his busy schedule over the next few months will be a visit to Buckingham Palace.
“It is extremely flattering and very humbling,” said Batson, who was awarded an MBE in 2001. “You just do what you believe in and I have always enjoyed the work I have done. I have been very fortunate.
“Football found me and I have been involved in it all my life, it is a wonderful sport.
“I think I am very lucky to be involved in sport, but football has been good to me and long may it continue.”
Now aged 61, Batson has no plans to call it a day though he admits it is time for the next generation to start finding their voice.
“I don’t think about it (retirement) too much. While I am enjoying what I do and have the opportunity to do it, I will continue,” he said.
“I think there are a lot of us who have done it a long time. People like Paul Elliott, who is on the FA council and does a lot of work, not just here and in Europe.
“Then you have people like Garth Crooks, who is a bit of an activist. There is the younger element with guys like Jason Roberts, who is a voice and is articulating his arguments – it is good to see that sort of energy.
“Those of us going back all those years have been on a long journey, but we know there is a lot more to do.
“We want to hand over the baton to those who have different ideas and rightly so – because we all have a sell-by date. But whatever happens, it has been an enjoyable and exciting journey.”
From Express & Star