Mark Sampson, the caretaker manager of League Two side Stevenage, has been charged by the English Football Association with alleged racist language. The investigation has been ongoing since September and was started after a former coach made the allegations.
Sampson has had previous incidents of racism. He is, of course, the former manager of the England women’s national team who was found by an independent investigation to have “on two separate occasions made ill-judged attempts at humour, which, as a matter of law, were discriminatory on the grounds of race” to former national team player Eni Aluko. The independent investigation was initiated following an inquiry by the FA that had cleared Sampson following Aluko’s claims of racism.
There’s no victory for Aluko or her supporters in Sampson being charged again. The vindication she received was little in the face of what she suffered for reporting his behavior.
Sampson’s punishment is inconsequential because racism is as rife in football as it is in society. What has been enlightening since Aluko first complained about him has been the open and clear display of not only how racism is maintained, but how victims are lambasted and gaslighted for speaking out about the abuse that they suffered.
Lest we forget, Aluko was shut out of the national team after making the complaint against Sampson, along with teammates who made similar charges. Afterward, her former teammates celebrated the manager, signaling which side they had chosen.
The FA’s actions after her complaint were also an effort to silence the victim rather than find truth or justice within the matter. The FA mishandled the situation from the start, initially clearing Sampson, then withholding half of Aluko’s settlement in response to a tweet she sent criticizing the organization. It eventually fired the manager for entirely different abuse allegations, saying he should have never been hired in the first place.
Then there were certain media members, like Matthew Syed, who wrote in The Times that, “Perhaps the most troubling thing of all is that so many young people are among those who rush to be vicariously offended by remarks that have not been substantiated, still less contextualised.”
One of the comments Sampson made against Aluko, who is of Nigerian heritage, was that her family would bring Ebola with them to England, to which Syed said, “I don’t think the Ebola comment was inappropriate per se. Context is crucial, here.”
Former England goalkeeper David James also said, in a now deleted tweet, that the source of Aluko’s allegations was that she wasn’t good enough for the team, rather than the racism that she complained about. This just added to the abuse from the standard social media trolls, who love to espouse about how everyone who brings up racism is complaining too much.
Everything that happened after Aluko’s initial allegations, from the FA’s actions to the abuse to the smallest internet trolls, was a rabid reaction that tried to not just dismiss the abuse, but to convince her that her reaction was unjustified. Those who accused Aluko of embellishing events wanted her to believe that she was being hysterical. That she wasn’t abused, and she was just angry at not being good enough for the team. That she was being too easily offended.
Luckily for those individuals, they could hide behind the FA, which attempted to sweep the incident aside. Had an independent investigation not reviewed the case, she would have surely been condemned forever as a petty has-been who wanted to take down an innocent man.
But now everyone’s quiet. The tweets have been deleted. The settlement money has been paid out and the FA has moved on without making any reform to the same system that hired Sampson to begin with, and then tried to shield him from accountability. And Sampson has now been charged again, unsurprisingly, for the same issues.
Many people in football like to act perplexed about how racism manages to thrive in the sport, how such a disease has lasted so long. Some of those people are in English football.
There’s no real secret to it. The Aluko case shows exactly how bigotry survives anywhere. The individual perpetrators of racism are bad and should be expunged from the game, but they don’t exist alone. They’re often supported by institutions and fans, who are quick to sympathize with the person accused of racism over the victim, and who never stop to ask themselves why that dynamic exists.
When the one who has suffered is eventually proven right after losing everything but their integrity, all of those voices who rose up to defend the abuser won’t be found anywhere. They take no blame in anything. They do nothing to reckon with their role in maintaining bigotry, and the world goes on and racism lives on.
Unfortunately, until organizations and people treat racist allegations properly, the cycle of victims being retaliated against will continue. Football and racism should not be synonymous, but as long as people like Sampson get the immediate support and assistance of institutions like FA over the victims, the status quo will continue and we’ll keep pretending that we don’t know how the disease of bigotry keeps infecting the game.