Shaka Hislop did not think of himself as an anti-racism campaigner when he answered an appeal for donations to set up a new charity aiming to educate school children on the dangers of racial prejudice.
Raised on some horrific stories of his father’s experience in 1960s London after travelling from Trinidad and Tobago to study law, he did not even think of himself as an anti-racism campaigner when he first visited schools to raise the profile of the work the group his donation had helped create were doing.
But now as Honourary president of the charity, Hislop knows better than most how important Show Racism the Red Card have been since he opened that letter back in 1996. He also knows how important they will be as English football tries to come to terms with the fact racism can still be as poisonous and divisive as ever.
“We will never give up, that is never going to happen,” said Hislop. “I’m extremely proud to have been part of Show Racism the Red Card and I have seen the enormous gains organisations like ours and Kick it Out have made, but our work is not done and we never believed it was.
“We use football and footballers to highlight the problems of prejudice, not just racism, but homophobia, sexism….
“Black players have to realise that to really change attitudes they have to continue to give their support to organisations like SRtRC. I wasn’t a father when I opened that letter, but I’m a father now and the only way we can hope to change society’s attitudes in the future is if we speak to children now.”
After years of patting itself on the back for all of the gains made in the battle against racism, English football has been repeatedly punched in the stomach by its high profile re-emergence.
Doubled over, the wind knocked out of it, the game appears to be in danger of haemorrhaging, tearing itself apart in response to a racist remark from former England captain John Terry.
Rightly or wrongly, black players feel alienated again. They are fighting an entrenched, institutionalised enemy, which cannot understand why they are so angry. But they are also fighting among themselves, scrambling for the right reaction, teetering on the brink of open rebellion.
“I don’t think complacent is the right word, but just because things aren’t as bad as they were 20 years ago doesn’t mean everything is as it should be,” said Hislop. “No, it’s not as bad as it was when players like Viv Anderson and John Barnes had bananas thrown at them on the pitch and black players were called all sorts, on and off the pitch, often by their own teammates or manager.
“There has been a lot of success and you cannot downplay the importance of organisations like Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out. They have been campaigning for a change in attitude and it is thanks to their efforts that thing have improved so dramatically from the 1970s and 80s, even the early 90s.
“But we haven’t got rid of racism in the game. It hasn’t gone away and what we have seen this week is a group of black players deciding to say enough is enough.
“This feeling has been simmering away from some time, it hasn’t just come about because there was anger at the light punishment given to John Terry.
“That has been the spark for these protests, but the feelings behind the protest have been there for some time.
“These players feel there is still some way to go and they are right. We are so quick to condemn countries abroad who behave in a way we used to 20 years ago that have forgotten about our own problems. This group of players have decided to take the leadership in expressing their concern and to remind the authorities that there is still a lot of work to be done.
“I support what they have done, they have raised a pertinent issue within the game, but now is the time for a unified response.”
For all of the good work done by Kick it Out in raising the profile of the anti-racism message, the main gripe seems to be that it lacks the will and means to criticise the Football Association when it fails to act properly.
“The point is Kick It Out has lacked the power to do more,” explained Hislop. “They are disappointed that, during the John Terry trial, they were very quiet. Again, when Terry was punished so lightly by the FA, they were too quiet again.
“They didn’t speak up and players from minority backgrounds felt let down. A four game ban is a ludicrously lenient punishment to give out and while the FA have their hands tied legally as to what they can do, it sent out the wrong message.
“On the weekend Terry started his ban, players were asked to wear the T-Shirts of an organisation many black players felt had failed to speak up enough during the whole saga. If you compare their statements regarding the behaviour of Fifa and Uefa with those made about the FA, they are far more willing to speak about racist incidents abroad.”
Many feel talk of a separate black players union will do more harm than good, that it will create and accentuate a ‘them and us’ attitude that facilitates rather than combats racism. Hislop, the former West Ham, Newcastle and Reading goalkeeper, is one of them, to an extent.
“I don’t think it is dangerous to talk about a black players union, but I do think that has to exist within existing bodies like the PFA,” he added. “If you look at the trade union movement, there have always been minority chapters who look out specifically for the needs of those members.
“It would be an organisation that represents the interests of minority group players, but I think that can only happen by getting together with KIO, SRtRC, the PFA and the FA and coming to an agreement on how to go about it.
“At the moment there is a stand-off and I expect that will continue for a few more days, but ultimately the players will realise they need the game behind them to get anything done and the game will realise it needs minority group players.
“It is up to groups like SRtRC to help bring the two sides together to discuss what needs to be done and what happens from here. I think we can do that. Kick it Out also have that role to play. The issue has been raised, now we have to come together and try to do something about it.”