Aarti Ratna argues that the ideology that football is a ‘fair game’ is masking racism and sexism in the sport

On 18th October 2017, the Nigerian-born Black British women’s football player Eniola Aluko, won a small kind-of-victory. Evidence presented at a Department for Culture, Media and Sport select committee hearing (DCMS), in relation to a broader investigation into the governance of the English Football Association (FA), not only corroborated Aluko’s on-going claims – about the discriminatory comments made to her by the former manager of the women’s national side, Mark Sampson – but also, made visible the systemic racism at the heart of the FA’s workings. Astoundingly, the committee heard that the FA had not only previously dismissed Aluko’s complaint – with a 14-word email response – but also that they had withheld half of an £80,000 agreed settlement (Taylor, 2017a).

At the hearing, Aluko explained in her statement, that she was told by the FA that she would only receive the rest of her payment if she wrote a statement clearing the FA of institutional racism (Taylor, 2017a). The FA’s handling of the case has quite simply been a public travesty, with the Chairperson of the DCMS inquiry further calling for resignations of those culpable of misconduct (see Kelner, 2017a). I would also add, that the FA’s recruitment of the barrister Katherine Newton, to lead their internal review, was also rather sinister: placing the burden of white institutional responsibility on to her individual Black shoulders. With only half of the information available to her, with many key witnesses not approached by the FA for interview Newton initially cleared Sampson’s racism.

Mark Sampson (Wikimedia Commons)

Both KickItOut and the Professional Footballers’ Association are right to suggest that the FA’s mishandling of the case has only served to cover-up the truth (Taylor, 2017b). Sampson’s contract was subsequently terminated, after evidence miraculously emerged relating to a separate matter, evidencing his inappropriate conduct with female players at Bristol Academy. First-hand reports suggested that during his time there, “club trips were more like the coming together of stag and hen-dos” (Taylor, 2017b). One wonders, thinking about the recruitment of football coaches, in relation to the child sexual abuse scandal which emerged last year across the men’s game (Gibson, 2016), why was this evidence not found in a pre-selection checking of Sampson’s credentials before being appointed England manager? Moreover, why is it that it took evidence of his “inappropriate behaviour” to get the sack, and not Aluko’s testimony about his racisms? The case ultimately does two things: it confirms the FA as institutionally racist and incompetent, and Sampson as a coach working within an industry where players regularly get away with both racisms (Burdsey, 2014) and inappropriate sexual conduct (Smith, 2016; see also Khomami, 2017 about the #metoo hashtag). I argue that to understand this case, and the underpinning ideology of football as essentially a fair game, we need to look back to the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, and to critically consider football more broadly in relation to this context.

Before Aluko first discussed Sampson’s racisms, in 2015 at the Women’s World Cup in Canada, questions about her performance were raised despite her outstanding form and status as “star player” (Leighton, 2015). Sampson, a relatively unknown coach at the time, had recently taken over following the 15-year reign of the first Black person, male or female, to manage England: Hope Powell. Some might argue that her tenure is evidence of women’s football being meritocratic, but I would suggest that her representation actually works to mask racisms beyond the public façade of football (see Hylton and Lawrence, 2016), and which has become unravelled through the Aluko case.

Sampson, and his ‘Lionnesses’, as they became dubbed in the British press, were publically praised for their performances which saw the team reach the semi-finals of the competition. The side had achieved a great feat (more than their male counterparts in the last couple of decades) and the public mood was optimistic: players were not only vocal about their determination to win the tournament in press interviews, but they also wanted to become role models for other girls back in England who wanted to play the game. Whilst I watched in support of their achievements, as an academic who has previously written about women’s football, race, gender and racism (based on the experiences of British Asian female football players in England), I wondered about the predominant whiteness of the England women’s squad. A question all the more significant given the prevalence of Black men playing football at professional and national levels of the game, and according to Sport England figures (2016), the rising number of Black, Asian and ethnic minority women engaging in physical activity and sport on a weekly basis (2.92 million).

Despite the well-deserved hype given to her by her football peers, evident in the commentary of the well-known dual heritage England striker Rachel Yankey, for example, Aluko’s lack of goal scoring in the early matches was questioned and she only made three appearances during the tournament (Leighton, 2015). She played in England’s two opening games and then not until the 61st minute of the third-place play-off game against Germany (Leighton, 2015). Whilst other white players who had been similarly dropped had been given the chance to come back to the field of play, either in the starting line-up or as substitutes in the knock-out rounds, I wondered why Aluko as the pre-tournament top goal-scorer, was not given a similar opportunity (Leighton, 2015). I had suspicions at the time that racial bias might have been a factor behind this snubbing, but I had no evidence to qualify this perception. Moreover, Sampson was hailed as the white, male hero behind the success of the team. How could his choices be questioned in this context? Aluko has since confessed that under Sampson’s management, between 2014-2016, she became increasingly aware of how she was being treated unfairly in comparison to her white teammates, and she felt bullied (Taylor, 2017b). It was also during this time that Sampson told her “to make sure her family did not bring the Ebola virus to Wembley” (Kelner, 2017b). And in 2015, at the China Cup, Sampson asked the dual heritage player Drew Spence, how many times she had been arrested by the police (Kelner, 2017b). Aluko has not played for England since May 2016, when her claims against Sampson first became known. Interestingly, other Black and dual heritage women players have also “disappeared” from the England set-up, despite evidence of their own particular skills, experiences and talents (Taylor, 2017b).

How can we begin to explain the racial dynamics of the women’s game, or more precisely, the enduring whiteness of the sport? The whiteness of women’s football, and the representation of Black and South Asian female footballers, has been the subject of past academic study (Scraton, Caudwell and Holland, 2005). In my own research, for example, I have particularly questioned the ideology of women’s football as ‘essentially fair’, claiming that racism is part of the game even if it not necessarily acknowledged by white ambassadors of the sport (Ratna, 2007).

Making sense of this, I suggest that as girls and women are often fighting for the right to play football, and to be taken seriously in a traditionally male pastime, sexism seems to trump racism. But this does not mean racism (and/or other forms of discrimination) do not exist in relation to sexism. Many of the players in my study cited examples of everyday racism and racialized forms of banter, citing individual ignorance and prejudice as contributory factors (Ratna, 2007). However, the racism went further than this. Name-calling on the field of playing, complaints not being taken seriously by referees (or county council disciplinary boards, see Lusted, 2009), being ignored or being played out of position at club trials, white parents abusing British Asian female coaching staff (see also Rankin-Wright and Norman, 2017), and also, for those who played in predominantly white teams, feeling out-of-place and excluded.

In this context, arguably it was easier for many of the players to speak to forms of sexism rather than to racism as well as winning space by playing-up to heteronormative discourses (Ratna, 2013) historically associated to the women’s game (Caudwell, 1999).   I am therefore unsurprised that despite a couple of British Asian players making it to elite levels, others have not made similar breakthroughs, even to this day. I want to suggest, that this lack of elite standing is not related to the physical frailty of South Asian girls and women and/or claims of their cultural passivity (Ratna, 2011). These girls and women are powerful and use their power as savvy operators, to express their own pleasures as well as to shape their engagements in the sport (Ratna, 2010).

Relatively speaking, if South Asian women are (falsely) imagined as un-sporty, this is certainly not the case for Black girls and women who are often rendered “naturally” powerful, and physically built for sport (Cahn, 1994; Ismond, 2003; Ratna and Samie, 2017). Yet, even for Black women in comparison to their male peers, who are perhaps over-represented in men’s football, their under-representation is indicative of a deeper sexual division of power. Arguably, in football, as with the governance of many other sports, men’s participation is prioritised (Lusted and Fielding-Lloyd, 2017). For me, this signals the on-going reluctance of some white men to take seriously their control of elite sports. Thus, sports such as football operate to both exclude men, who are seen as unable to obtain an appropriate sporting masculinity, and women, who in general, and in different ways, continue to be viewed as secondary objects in sport.

In many contemporary representations of football, it becomes apparent that racism is very rarely recognised and/or taken seriously. After the Macpherson inquiry, anti-racist groups are sometimes read as evidence of equality being achieved, celebrated and upheld. Thus, despite a few rogue individuals making silly remarks, how can racism exist when it has already been tackled? Even in relation to this case, it is laughable that Sampson himself was not deemed racist, even though his words were viewed as racist. The ideology of football being colourblind and meritocratic persists, becoming an unassailable line of division (Burdsey, 2014; Carrington, 2012; Long and Hylton, 2002).

Eniola Aluko (Wikimedia Commons)

Players like Aluko are still believed to have a (Black) chip on their shoulder, and for playing the race card because they do not like the decisions of the manager (see Ian Wright speaking on Radio 5 live 19th October, the grime artist Stomzy calling out the former England men’s goalkeeper David James in McIntyre, 2017; and Hylton, 2009 for further debate). How can black players speak out in this assumed post-racist sporting world? Black players’ own viewpoints (e.g. the French Black footballer Claude Makelele suggesting that other Black players do not try hard enough to become managers [Fulda, 2017]) are also often used to justify the “no problem here” mentality. The un/intentional speech acts and performances of racial and ethnic minority sportspeople is also significant, enabling some of them “to pass” as insiders, complicit to the racist textures of such sporting spaces (Burdsey, 2015; Ratna, 2013). Arguably, as a result, this further masks the insidious, subtle and complex nature of racism which lurks behind the scenes, rather than what is played out through the public posturings of organisations such as the FA (Hylton and Lawrence, 2016; King, 2004). Such front-facing impression management techniques undoubtedly make racism harder to expose as an on-going problem.

If Aluko had not been trained as a lawyer, I wonder if she would have gone through this public and tormenting experience, where she became the location of the problem and not the racism she was calling-out (Ahmed, 2017; Taylor, 2017b). Post-Brexit, equity laws are more important than ever before, and are imperative to the civil liberties of the many male and female racialized outsiders, who as recreational enthusiasts as well as high-profile athletes, really need laws to work for them, and which make accountable institutional racisms, and connected forms of discrimination (see Race Disparity Audit, 2017; Gardiner and Welch, 2001; Guardian Opinion, 2017).

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(Vicky Matthers: iconphotomedia)

Aarti Ratna’s research centres upon the sociology of race, gender, migration and diaspora.  Her work utilises anti-racist feminist theorisings, particularly in connection to studies about sport and leisure.  Focusing upon g/localised and complex asymmetries of power, she seeks to elucidate the agentic beings, pleasures and desires of racially Othered groups of men and women.  Aarti is particularly well-known for her published work around British Asian female footballers’ racialized experiences of gender and identity in women’s football.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Dr Dan Burdsey who initially urged me to write this piece, Professor Jonathan Long who kindly shares newspaper reports with me that he knows I will be interested in, like one about Eniola Aluko from last summer, and also to Dr Jim Lusted, who provided feedback on this piece and generously shared his critical insights with me. Any omissions and/or inaccuracies are my own.

All work published on MD is the intellectual property of its creators, and requires permission to be republished. Contact us if you have any questions. Featured image by Lee Fraser via Flickr.


Ahmad, S, (2017) Living a Feminist Life, Durham: Duke University Press.

Burdsey, D. (2015) ‘Un/Making the British Asian male athlete: race, legibility and the state’, Sociological Research Online, access at http://www.socresonline.org.uk/20/3/17.html

Burdsey, D. (2014) ‘One week in October: Luis Suárez, John Terry and the turn to racial neoliberalism in English men’s professional football’, Social Identities, 21(5): 429-447.

Cahn, S.K. (1994) Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Women’s Sports, New York: Free Press.

Carrington, B, (2012) ‘Sport Matters: An Introduction’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35(6): 961-970.

Caudwell, J. (1999) ‘Women football in the United Kingdom: Theorising Gender and Unpacking the Butch Lesbian image’, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 23(4): 390-402.

Gardiner, S. and Welch, R. (2001) ‘Sport, Racism and the limits of “color blind” law’ in B. Carrington and I. McDonald (Eds.) ‘Race’, Sport and British Society; London; New York: Routledge: 133-150.

Gibson, O. (2016) Victims of sexual abuse speak out in week that truly shook football https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/nov/25/sexual-abuse-football-andy-woodward-football-association 19th October 2016

Guardian Opinion (2017) The Guardian View of Eni Aluko: a well-deserved victory https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/19/the-guardian-view-on-eni-aluko-a-well-deserved-victory accessed on 19th October 2017.

Hylton, K. (2016) ‘For your eyes only!: Donald Sterling and backstage racism in sport’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2016.1177193

Hylton, K. (2009) Race and Sport: Critical Race Theory, London: Routledge.

Long, J. and Hylton, K. (2002) ‘Shades of Whiteness: An Examination of Whiteness in Sport’, Leisure Studies, 21: 87-103.


One thought on “No racism here then? Wo/men’s football in the UK and the case of Eniola Aluko

  1. Amazing work and most needed work by Dr. Aarti Ratna. In these days of Brexit, Trump, and rising white supremacy, scholarship like this is most important.


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