Change that leads to better lives

Can inclusion be the real winner?

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You probably couldn’t fail to notice that there was a big football match this weekend. We may not have won (I’m pretty sure this isn’t a spoiler by now) but as I went to bed last night, I was still feeling a bit warm and fuzzy about it and hoping that the real winner was inclusion.

Even if you don’t like football, perhaps especially if you don’t, you can’t deny that football is a big thing. And this is all the time - not just when the men’s team eventually make a final at a major competition. Week in, week out, people drive their kids to play it, stand in terrible weather to see it, meet in pubs to talk over it, fall asleep on the sofa in front of it. And because it is a big thing, it can have a big influence.

It can’t be denied that at times football has been associated with violence, xenophobia, hate and division. But what I saw in this Euro 2020 England campaign and its build-up were overt messages of inclusiveness, equality, acceptance and tolerance. Gareth Southgate set the tone with his open letter to England where he was explicit about the players being role models and their responsibility “to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice.” And they have done that. These are just some examples:

  • We’ve seen them booed by their own fans for taking the knee. Yet, they have persisted in this, having collectively agreed to continue it as a gesture of unity against inequality and discrimination. Unfortunately, the reports this morning of the racist abuse directed at some of our players underline the reason they started taking the knee.
  • Despite being a Liverpool fan, Marcus Rashford has become a favourite footballer of mine. Like many, I have been blown away by his honesty in sharing his experiences of child poverty, and how he has channelled this powerfully into an effective campaign raising both money and awareness. He has made strides towards stopping other children going through what he did.
  • The captain, Harry Kane, wore a rainbow armband in support of LGBTQ+ communities in the earlier match against Germany.
  • After an England fan tweeted their delight and relief about the positive reaction they had when attending the match “in full make-up and overtly queer”, Jordan Henderson responded “No one should be afraid to go and support their club or country because football is for everyone no matter what.”

I’ve never met any of the England football team and there will be many things I am not aware of, both good and bad, that the squad has done but I am finding this strong message of inclusivity heart-warming.

We know top-level footballers are paid staggering amounts of money, and in the early days of the first lockdown Matt Hancock (then health secretary) called on footballers to "take a pay cut and play their part". We have certainly seen examples of them playing their part. Jordan Henderson led the Players Together initiative NHS appeal that encouraged professional football players to donate to the NHS. The England team have supported this and are believed to be making a significant donation to NHS Charities from their match wages.

Football can also impact at a more local level. Ultimately, it is entrenched in communities and it plays a role in shaping and supporting these. At NDTi, our work with diverse sports providers including grassroots and major football clubs, demonstrates the social value and impact of inclusive opportunities for football, and other sports, including bringing different communities and generations together around a common aim.

The England men’s football team getting to the final has been a much-needed joyous ride for the nation. Sadly, this has been marred by some of the images we have seen today and the hateful comments on social media. We are repeatedly told that such despicable behaviour is only from a minority of people and let us hope it is, but this is still something that society needs to challenge directly. We cannot be afraid to have open and frank discussions about equality and inclusion. I know people who have found that explaining to their children why the players were taking the knee has led to some of their most direct conversations about racism.

A colleague of mine texted before the game that her young child had just said “I’m going to play for England when I grow up” and she wondered how many thousands of kids across the country were saying that at that same time. Now, very few of these kids will go on to represent their country in national football, but wouldn’t it be a great legacy if this England squad could also inspire them to be kinder, more inclusive and to openly challenge prejudice and injustice? Can we learn from the united approach of the team to persist with taking the knee in the face of mounting criticism, because they knew it was the right thing to do? And it is clearly not just about educating the next generation - wouldn’t it be great if older generations could also learn from these messages? That would certainly be something to celebrate.

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Contact Details

Anna Marriott
Tel: 01225 255 268
Email: anna.marriott@ndti.org.uk

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