Sir Alex Ferguson has changed my life. Some of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced are a result of the brilliant teams he has built and the success he has inspired. Whilst I’m not blinded to his mistakes or personal flaws, it is rare that I would publicly criticise him. However, I think the handling of Rio Ferdinand in response to him not wearing a “Kick It Out” t-shirt ahead of Saturday’s win over Stoke has been fairly embarrassing for the club.
The FA are founding and funding partners of Kick It Out which unfortunately means they have a conflict of interests. It is the FA that dish out punishments for racism so it is part of KIO’s responsibility to tackle them on this. When you consider Joey Barton received a 12 match ban for going nuts on the last game of the season, which is equivalent to Luis Suarez and John Terry’s bans for racism added together, it highlights the issues of the FA’s handling of racism. KIO can’t dictate the length of the ban but they can react in a way that would put the FA under pressure to do something. Whilst I’m not suggesting KIO should take the same route as more radical charities like PETA to get their point across, surely there’s something they could do that would have a greater impact than releasing a statement or getting footballers to wear a t-shirt. But will they bite the hand that feeds them? Will they tear a strip off FA for their handling of racism? Possibly not if they want the FA to continue funding them.
Players are entitled to feel as though KIO aren’t doing enough though and in protesting against them, by not wearing the t-shirts, they are making this point known. I’ve seen some strange criticism of the players who didn’t wear the t-shirts, with some claiming they are working against KIO and that the only way to get rid of racism in football is to work together, but if KIO aren’t doing a good enough job, then what is the point in giving them unwavering support? Hopefully the decision of some players not to wear the t-shirt will put pressure on KIO to do a better job, which was obviously the goal of those players, which can only be a positive thing. The players weren’t trying to damage KIO, rather force them to be more active in the fight against racism. To think that the Ferdinands, Roberts, Joleon Lescott, every player at Swansea and Wigan, were in some way trying to fight against KIO is bizarre. What would they have to gain from doing this? They want racism out of the game as much as anyone but they don’t believe KIO are going about it in the right way. Why shouldn’t they be entitled to voice this?
“It seems like the authorities don’t have the stomach to take this on, and if the players don’t take it on then nobody will,” Jason Roberts said ahead of the weekend. “I find it hard to wear a T-shirt after what has happened in the last year. I won’t wear one. I’m totally committed to kicking racism out of football but when there’s a movement I feel represents the issue in the way that speaks for me and my colleagues, then I will happily support it. I think people feel let down by what used to be called ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’. People don’t feel like they have been strong enough.”
Roberts would not be wearing the t-shirt during KIO’s campaign week and Ferguson was asked what he thought about this during the Friday press conference. Maybe he was being set up a little, with most papers having already reported that the Ferdinands wouldn’t be wearing the t-shirt, but the manager waded in to this unknown territory regardless.
“I have to disagree with Jason Roberts. I think he is making the wrong point,” he said. “Everyone should be united, with all the players in the country wearing the Kick It Out warm-up tops. I don’t know what point he is trying to make. I don’t know if he is trying to put himself on a different pedestal from everyone. But he really should be supporting all the rest of the players who are doing it. When you do something, and everyone believes in it, you should all do it together. There shouldn’t be sheep wandering off. I think he is making the wrong message. All the players are wearing it. I have only heard that Jason Roberts is different – but he is very different. He plays a game and is in the studio 20 minutes after it. That is a great privilege.”
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, Ferguson is no exception to that, but you do have to wonder whether a white man who has never been racially abused before is in the best position to talk about the rights and wrongs of black players reacting to feeling let down by KIO. Regardless, we can all imagine what we would do if we were a professional footballer/black professional footballer and asked to wear that t-shirt. We aren’t in that position though so we aren’t the best qualified to give an opinion on what the players should have done. I think the fact Ferguson believed that Roberts was the only person to take issue with KIO shows his lack of understanding of the issue at hand though. He seems to suggest that Roberts is being a drama queen, an attention seeker, with nothing to gain from not wearing a t-shirt, which quite simply isn’t true.
The issue this weekend has arisen because Ferguson told the press that all of his players, including Rio, would be wearing a KIO t-shirt. The fact that Ferguson admitted he didn’t know what point Roberts was trying to make in not wearing a t-shirt suggests that he hadn’t had a conversation with Rio about it. Whilst Ferguson could still have disagreed with Roberts, if he had talked to Rio, he would have at least known the reasons why some players were not wearing the t-shirt.
As it is, it appears as though Ferguson has made a decision on Rio’s behalf without having spoken to him first. As we all know, Rio chose not to wear the t-shirt and this lead to an angry reaction from the manager after the game.
“I am disappointed,” he said. “I said on Friday that the players would be wearing it in support of the PFA and that every player should adhere to it. It is embarrassing for me. We are all wearing the badges and he goes and lets us down. We’ll deal with it, don’t worry.”
The only instance where I would believe Ferguson had some right to voice his frustration is if Ferdinand assured him before Friday’s press conference that he would wear the shirt. However, given Ferguson’s lack of understanding about why anyone wouldn’t wear the shirt and the unlikelihood that any player would set out to lie to and defy the manager, it is more probable that Ferguson assured the press Rio would be wearing the t-shirt without having a conversation with him about it first. I think any player should have the right to decide on where they stand on the KIO issue, but when you consider the fact it was Rio’s brother that was racially abused and the fact Rio missed out on the Euros because his brother was racially abused, he certainly should be shown the respect to make this decision by himself.
The telling part of Ferguson’s post-match comments are: “it is embarrassing for me.” Ferguson is embarrassed because it looks as though he can’t control his players. Some people might suggest that as the manager of the club he should have the right to dictate what the players do and don’t wear. But for me, it appears as though any arguments against wearing the shirt didn’t really cross Ferguson’s mind, so he made assurances he wasn’t in a position to give, and now looks silly as a result. Whilst I understand him wanting to look like top dog, like a manager who nobody undermines, he is the one that put himself in that position, not Rio. If the club want players to don t-shirts with the logo of DHL, Turkish Airlines or Mr Potato, then fair enough, but I don’t think the club are in a position to tell players they have to support an organisation that on principle they disagree with.
Essentially, it’s just a bloody t-shirt, and if Rio doesn’t want to wear it, he should be allowed to make that choice. The only reason why this has become an issue is because the manager said he would. It is to do with his personal pride more than anything to do with KIO, the club or Rio. As Ferguson has repeatedly said in reference to players, no one person is bigger than this club. That includes Ferguson.
Some newspapers reported that Rio would be fined £220k, the equivalent of two weeks wages (and the fine Terry was given by the FA for racially abusing Rio’s brother), which would be outrageous.
PFA chairman and Kick It Out ambassador Clarke Carlisle hopes the decision of some players not to wear anti-racism t-shirts will prompt discussions rather than punishments.
“Sir Alex Ferguson is trying to reaffirm his unwavering support of the Kick It Out campaign and that’s fantastic,” Carlisle said. “But this should not be seen as player versus club or dissension from a player against their employer. This is about a group of players and some wider issues that transcend that relationship. We would not want to see Rio Ferdinand punished. As I said of the handshake saga, you cannot coerce any man against his will and to do so would be the complete opposite of what the campaign is for. (Reading manager) Brian McDermott and (Newcastle manager) Alan Pardew said they had good conversations with their players to understand why (they did not wear the t-shirt) and they respect them in that. Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out in his own interview he did not know why Jason Roberts or any other player would not want to wear the t-shirt, so I hope that conversation takes place in the next couple of days.”
Manchester United have been so successful for more than two decades under Ferguson’s leadership because he commands and demands respect. I would never support a player publicly disrespecting the manager because I think it’s important that he is allowed to carry out his job the way he wants to. However, in this situation, I do not believe Rio showed the manager up, Ferguson sadly did that all by himself, and whilst he may want to dictate to the players what they do in all walks of life, unfortunately for him, he is not in a position to do that. Ferguson cannot tell our players to back an organisation they have taken issue with and if he doesn’t want to be embarrassed, he should try talking with them before speaking on their behalf. The likely explanation is that it didn’t even cross Ferguson’s mind that Rio wouldn’t wear a t-shirt because, for him personally, he doesn’t see what KIO have done wrong. Just because he can’t see it or because he doesn’t agree, that doesn’t mean he can make the decision on behalf of everyone though, particularly over an issue which is clearly so personal to Rio.
With Rio’s contract set to expire in the summer, you do wonder where this incident will leave his Manchester United career though.