Football Supporters Europe (FSE) recently spoke to Bailey Brown, president of the Independent Supporters Council (ISC) of North America, about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Amongst other things, Bailey explained the reasons behind recent BLM protests in the United States and Canada, the responsibility of ISC members to promote the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), and the salience of the movement’s message for European football and its fans.
FSE remains steadfast in its commitment to the principles of diversity, inclusion, and equality, as well as anti-discrimination.
FSE: How does BLM tie in with the work of the ISC?
There was a perception that we were diverse and inclusive as a supporter culture, but I think the recent BLM protests have caused a lot of groups to question that assumption.
It’s interesting because soccer supporters’ culture is very white, but there are a lot of black leaders in our communities who are helping us to get our house in order. A lot of groups are using this as an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to listen, and to change the ways that they do things—amplifying minority voices, diversifying their boards, and so on.
The current protest wave began on 25th May in response to the murder of George Floyd. But, let’s be honest, it wasn’t the first time—George Floyd was near the end of a very, very long list of people, particularly black men, who have been killed at the hands of the American police. We shouldn’t be numb as a nation to seeing black men killed on social media. Part of me—a lot of me, all of me—feels terrible that it took so long for people to start to express their outrage.
We have some members up in Minneapolis who were in the thick of it when all of it started. As the protests have grown, we’ve seen supporters’ groups joining them, or highlighting related issues on their social media channels.
I hope it continues. As a supporter culture, we need to continue to work every day on being better and more inclusive. The ISC is looking internally at how we can start a process that ensures that we break the cycle and change the system.
FSE: Are there any specific initiatives that you think could be a template for supporters’ groups to follow?
There are some black community supporters’ groups in the United States that are leading the way in trying to push clubs to engage in meaningful dialogue.
Black Fires in Chicago are doing an incredible job, and it seems like, for the most part, they’re getting the Chicago Fire Front Office to listen and put out educational material. They also held an amazing panel during Black History Month where they had ex-players and supporters discussing their experiences as black people in soccer.
Similar work is being done by Featherstone Flamingos in Madison and Footie Mob in Atlanta, to name just a couple. More broadly, there’s a podcast called For the Culture that does an amazing job of highlighting the intersection between black culture and supporter culture.
And I know there’s rumblings of groups pushing their clubs to have these kinds of conversations. D.C. United, for instance, have painted ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘BLM’ on their pitch after their owner asked if it was a good idea and initiated the project between supporters, club staff, and players.
We need more of that, but it’s going to take more than black community groups doing the heavy lifting to create a truly inclusive environment for BIPOC supporters, players, and staff.
FSE: What about players? Where do they figure in all this?
It’s a problem.
We were on a call with MLS last Friday, and we briefly discussed what they were doing to make sure black players feel included and have the same opportunities to progress into coaching and executive roles as their white counterparts. But I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the system created by MLS isn’t particularly reflective of the game or, for that matter, wider society. And that is inevitably going to have an impact.
MLS did tell us that they’re leaning on the experience and advice of black staff. I believe them when they say that they’re going to work hard internally to break the cycle. On Juneteenth, the Black Players Coalition of MLS was launched. Their first statement explained their goals:
This is a new organization that will address the racial inequalities in our league, stand with all those fighting racism in the world of soccer, and positively impact black communities across the United States and Canada.
I hope that their voices are taken seriously and action steps for change are established and worked on.
But the real obstacle is the system itself. And that’s true for most sports.
We have a pay to play model. Even for kids, soccer is an expensive sport. It involves a lot of travel, club subscription fees, kits, boots, all of that. That means you have a lot of parents dropping thousands of dollars every year for their kids to play. But many people don’t have that kind of money, and scholarships at that age are few and far between.
Long story short: it’s the kids whose parents can afford to pay that stand the best chance of making it to the top. This is a consequence of and feeds back into the economic disparities that underpin systemic racism.
And those black players who do make it often have to endure appalling discrimination. We need to listen to them. And then we need to act.
FSE: What do you think of the way that European clubs, particularly in England, have responded to BLM?
My initial thought was this is really cool, especially since the message was so prominent in the Bundesliga and Premier League. I really wanted that Eintracht Frankfurt jersey.
But I think part of the caution we’re seeing over here is related to that well-worn analogy, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Are clubs doing this because they truly believe in the message and truly want to be at the forefront of change, or are they doing it for PR reasons?
I like the message, how forthright it is, but I hope the message is accompanied by internal conversations on how clubs can be more inclusive and diverse—on the pitch, on the terraces, and in the boardroom.
If you would like to learn more about the ISC, read our previous interview with Bailey.