Alex Miller's Sheffield Wednesday column: Why it's time to be braver when we talk about racism

I’ve got a confession to make. And it’s all a bit uncomfortable.

Thursday, 25th June 2020, 7:00 pm

A few days ago, when discussing The Star’s content plans for the week ahead and leafing through Garry Monk quotes, the notion of a ‘new normal’ and who the club might put up to interview, my Wednesday desk partner-in-crime Joe and I touched on what we had planned for our weekly columns.

And in truth, there was only one subject that, well, mattered. The Black Lives Matter movement is quite rightly at the centre of the national conversation in football, sport and the wider world. It feels as if there is an opportunity to edge towards change and the vast momentum built up in the past few weeks both in terms of education and self-reflection should not be allowed to slow.

I was one of the few people lucky enough to have witnessed the Sheffield Wednesday trio of Dominic Iorfa, Liam Palmer and Jacob Murphy lift their fists in solidarity as the Owls joined the football world in showing its support to the cause, one of the many to have read some of the disgusting comments trotted out by the vocal minority in reply to the club’s social media account afterwards.

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But back to our content conversation and the discussion was had over which one of us would take the issue on. And how.

I’d written similar columns for The Star before, about the glorious multiculturalism of the England cricket team and the uncomfortable truth around Paolo Di Canio, but writing about the Black Lives Matter movement made me nervous.

Would I anger ‘that’ section of readers? Would I lose favour? Would I lose Twitter followers, shudder the thought?

Perhaps I’d write about Garry Monk’s shift to a 3-5-2 instead. Alex Hunt? Another easy, crowd-pleasing puff piece on the importance of fans?

Jacob Murphy and Liam Palmer took to one knee on Saturday. Pic: Steve Ellis.

In the end, I was weak. I stumbled, mumbled and bottled it. Joe knew it and I knew it. He took the challenge head on and wrote an excellent piece detailing exactly why the ‘All Lives Matter’ rebuke is so deeply flawed.

And then Ben Mee stood in front of the Sky Sports cameras and said it how it needed to be said. No platitudes, no half-measures, no side-stepping. And it was inspiring.

Those that paraded the ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ message above the Etihad on Monday evening were wrong and they had shamed the club. He called out a section of the support that pay his wages live on television knowing there would be a backlash.

“I’m ashamed and embarrassed that a small number of our fans have decided to put that around the stadium,” he said. “There are a group of lads that are in there embarrassed to see that. It’s missed the whole point of what we’re trying to achieve and these people need to come into the 21st century and educate themselves as a lot of us do.

“It doesn’t represent what we’re about, what the club is about, what the players are about and what the majority of the fans are about.”

It was about as anti-racist as can be. The concerns over my little column suddenly felt a whole lot smaller.

The facts around racial inequality have been laid out, the memes and explanations of why ‘White Lives Matter’ is offensive and misleading spelled out time and again. The information is out there. There is no excuse for anyone parroting the nonsense and it’s time for self-reflection.

Sports journalism is quick to jump aboard the news cycle and point the finger when it comes to racism, particularly when it comes the number of black football managers.

And rightly so. In a sport that is so heavily reliant on the talents of black and mixed-race young men, it is shameful that a pathway to management, chairmanship and governance of the sport does not appear to exist. It’s yet another uncomfortable truth. But it’s one that extends into the press box.

Why, in five years across four different sports, can I count the number of BAME writers I’ve shared a press box with on one hand? On a 40-strong sports journalism course I attended at university from 2011-14 there was one BAME student. Why do white people appear to have the monopoly on dreams of a career writing about sport?

What does all that say about the industry I work in?

And what of Sheffield Wednesday? This is not to single the club out in any way, shape or form; very few British clubs have a fan base that cannot be described as ‘very white’, but in a city that has 19 per cent BAME population, is enough done to attract that section of our society into the fold?

The club was excellent in its defiant message against those that hijacked the empowering images of Iorfa, Palmer and Murphy on Saturday. But can it do more?

And what about me, writing this equally hypocritical stream of ‘white knight’ whatever-it-is? Am I careful enough not to use the lazy stereotypes and superlatives that perpetuate racism in football? Do I pull up friends an family for those ‘is-it-or-isn’t-it’ racist comments?

Ask the difficult questions and be braver. Stamp out the racist WhatsApp joke, write the column. It’s not enough to be ‘not racist’, it’s time for us all to step up and be anti-racist. Black Lives Matter.

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