The FA Inclusion Board should be inclusive

Last month saw another PR disaster for the FA, English football’s governing body, with the botched appointment and subsequent resignation of Michael Johnson to its recently formed panel on equality, the Inclusion Advisory Board.

Mr Johnson, a former footballer whose appointment was initially lauded as part of an improvement in diversity on the panel, has resigned after television footage emerged in which he was heard to make homophobic comments. While the circumstances of his resignation must be seen as embarrassing for the FA, it is the governing body’s reaction to the footage which is most worrying and leads to serious questions about what the Inclusion Advisory Board can achieve.

Last year saw the formulation of the “Inclusion Advisory Board” by the FA, to monitor the delivery of Football’s Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Action Plan between 2013 and 2017. Scepticism quickly emerged, however, as the composition of the panel was accused of lacking expertise, professional experience within the game, or even a diverse and inclusive membership.

Mr Johnson’s appointment appeared part of a growing attempt to address those concerns, given his background in the game as a former professional black player. Then came the BBC footage on The Big Questions from March 2012, where Johnson was quoted as describing homosexuality as “detestable”, on the basis of his religion. The Guardian caught hold of it and, predictably, Johnson stepped down after a weekend of reflection.

It must be said that Mr Johnson has now retracted his comments, claiming he has since learned the error of his ways. That is all very well, and I truly hope that the furore around his comments has made him think very closely about his views. The point should also be made that the FA in no way condoned his comments. However the bigger question in all of this is what was the FA doing appointing a man who had previously publicly denounced homosexuality, and not publicly retracted those statements, regarding one of the most sensitive topics in football and in most need of addressing?

Apparently the FA was unaware of Mr Johnson’s comments prior to his appointment. One must then look to the criteria for selection to the panel and the selection process generally.  Was no research done at all? No mining of the BBC Archive vaults was required; the television show in question was aired in 2012 on the BBC and the comments were unmistakeable as to their meaning. Any researcher with a modicum of self-pride could have found the damning information in a morning. More pointedly, what direct assessment was there? Was he interviewed, asked his views on even the most basic of topics? Imagine a simple checklist. It could go something like this:

FA Inclusion Board – Panel Membership

What relevant skills could you bring to the role?

Are you racist?

Are you sexist?

Are you homophobic?

Do you judge people based on their background or beliefs?

Have you ever been known to make a public comment in respect of any of the above?

More incredibly, Johnson’s comments on The Big Questions were in response to being asked whether he would support the FA’s anti-homophobic campaign, due to his Christian faith. This was not some obscure, unrelated incident. His involvement in the show was directly related to whether he would support an initiative by the body behind the panel he was now selected to represent. At best, his selection by the FA points to a lack of research and communication within the institution. At worst, it smacks of casual indifference.

Indeed, human rights activist Peter Thatchall has been quoted as describing the appointment as “gross negligence”, and it is hard to see it as anything better in the circumstances. Worryingly, the FA’s subsequent response to the press infers rather more than indifference or negligence, but actively misunderstanding the gravity of the situation or even the purpose of the Inclusion Advisory Board. It may have been a case of split loyalties and not wanting to condemn a man who had already expressed his regret at misguided statements, but the FA’s statements following the resignation that the panel were sad to see him leave, and that they would continue to consult him in the coming months, without even alluding to the fact that the homophobic statements were utterly wrong, is incomprehensible. The FA should have been at pains to stress that the position Mr Johnson’s comments inferred directly contradicted the concept of “inclusion”.  Would he have been sacked if he had not resigned himself? One might have thought that Johnson jumped before he was pushed, but the FA’s regretful statement must bring that assumption into serious doubt. While there are no publicly gay players currently playing in the Premier League (which is surely a statistical impossibility), the insensitivity of the FA’s response is remarkable.

Reforming opinion and culture is no easy thing, which will only ever be permanently resolved over a long period of gradual change. English culture generally is as much to blame as the football community itself for the prejudices within the game, and the FA is certainly trying to make things better. Recent support from the FA for former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger upon him announcing that he is gay is encouraging. But until the powers that be present a strong, unified and clear statement that they fully understand what it means to be inclusive, that prejudice of any kind is to be deterred and that it will not be tolerated within the game, any change will merely be cosmetic and the Inclusion Advisory Board will be added to the long list of wasted, short-term initiatives.


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