MPs show yellow card to FA in the last chance saloon

Written By: James Douglas
Published: February 26, 2017 Last modified: February 27, 2017

The Football Association are playing in the “last chance saloon.” A no confidence motion was passed by MPs debating the organisation’s ability to reform itself. While the motion is largely symbolic, MPs have warned legislation will be brought in if changes are not made.

The stakes are high. Sports minister Tracey Crouch has said the FA could lose £30 million-£40 million of public funding if they do not modernise. And culture, media and sport select committee chairman Damian Collins said: “No change is no option.” He added: “The FA, to use a football analogy, are not only in extra time, they are at the end of extra time, in ‘Fergie time.’ They are 1-0 down and if they don’t pick up fairly quickly, reform will be delivered to them.”

But the FA appears to remain in La La Land. FA life vice-president Keith Compton responded: “I would have thought with the state of the NHS, the lack of building, not enough cash for defence, that [MPs] would put energy into that not the organisation of football.” And FA chairman Greg Clarke (pictured) has said he will quit if the organisation cannot win government support for the  reform plans.

Collins suggested ministers should intervene to overhaul English football’s governing body because “turkeys won’t vote for Christmas” and it will not reform itself. Crouch warned the FA that if it played “Russian roulette” with public money it will lose. The minister also said the government would be prepared to consider legislation if the FA fails to present plans for required reforms before April.

The select committee has published two reports since 2010 recommending greater representation at the FA for fans and the grassroots game, as well as more diversity in positions of authority. It also wants to dilute the perceived dominance of the Premier League. Collins said the FA was given six months to meet the government guidance on best practice for sports governance but had failed to do so. That guidance called for things such as a move towards gender equality on boards, more independent oversight, more accountability and term limits for office bearers. He was joined by fellow Tories and Labour MPs – keen to ensure the “national game” is run correctly – in bemoaning the current state of the FA. The cross-party motion stated that MPs have no confidence in the FA’s ability to comply fully with its duties as its existing governance structures make it “impossible for the organisation to reform itself”. It was approved unopposed at the end of a backbench business debate, which was attended by fewer than 30 MPs.

The FA is effectively run by its own parliament, the FA Council, which has 122 members – just eight are women and only four from ethnic minorities. More than 90 of the 122 members are aged over 60. Shadow sports minister Rosena Allin-Khan said: “Not only is diversity not in the heart of the FA, it isn’t in its body, or even its soul.” Labour MP Keith Vaz, whose constituency of Leicester East is home to the Premier League champions Leicester City, added: “A quarter of all professional footballers are black, however only 17 of the 92 top clubs have an ethnic minority person in a senior coaching role.”

Asked whether there should be more female and ethnic minority involvement in FA decisions, Compton said: “That’s not really the responsibility of the council. If those people were interested enough, and we had enough people, we would have enough women and other people on the FA. I have heard people say supporters aren’t represented but that is not true. They have one representative. People want the council to be reduced and now I am hearing it should be increased.”

Responding, former FA chairman David Bernstein said: “I think if you want an argument for change, you’ve just heard it.” And Yunus Lunat, the first Muslim to get a seat on the FA Council before leaving three years ago, said new recruits were needed. “No one is disputing the contribution the previous generation has made but there comes a time when you have got to recognise that you are not the most suitable people for the role,” he said.

BBC sports editor Dan Roan wrote: “The debate may have been attended by fewer MPs than is needed for a full football match, but the fact a motion of no confidence in the FA was passed still gives it an embarrassing bloody nose, ramping up the pressure on the governing body. The few MPs who spoke seemed to mostly agree with each other, demanding greater diversity on the council, independent directors and fan representation on the board, and raising concerns over the clout and money of the professional clubs, especially the Premier League. But the people who really matter here are the government.

“The sports minister said the debate was “premature” and reiterated that she may consider the nuclear option of legislation to force through reforms – but only if a threat to cut funding does not work. That however, remains some way off and the FA is confident it can comply with a new code of governance. If it fails, chairman Greg Clarke has vowed to step down and then it really will be in the last-chance saloon.”

Football Supporters’ Federation chairman Malcolm Clarke said: “We’re very pleased to see so many MPs back our proposals for a minimum of five fan representatives on the FA Council, representation on the FA board, and increased diversity.

“Supporters are integral to the health of our national sport yet are still shockingly under-represented in the FA hierarchy – the FA Council has only one supporter representative, yet the Armed Forces and Oxbridge have five. It is also important to acknowledge that the FA Council has stood up to rampant commercialism within the game and protected fans’ interests – such as when the FA Council stopped the ‘Hull Tigers’ name change.”

During the debate, Judith Cummins (Labour, Bradford South) said: “At best they’re dragging their feet, at worst they’re wilfully failing to act.” Andrew Bingham, CMS select committee member said: “The issues of Sam Allardyce, who manages the [Englan]) team for 67 days, one game, walks away with allegedly around £1 million, it is destroying people’s faith in football.” Nigel Huddleston (Conservative, Mid Worcestershire) said: “I have a great deal of respect for Greg Clarke but I sense his hands are tied and a sense of institutional inertia pervades the governance of football in this country.”

Meanwhile, in a subsequent report, the culture, media and sport select committee urged that fans who display homophobic attitudes at matches should face immediate, lengthy bans on attending games. Sports authorities must adopt a zero-tolerance approach to homophobic abuse at all levels of sport. Football clubs in particular are not doing enough and should take a tougher approach, issuing immediate one to two year bans in the first instance to indicate clearly that homophobic behaviour will not be tolerated. Match officials should have a clear duty to report and document any kind of abuse at all levels: this should apply to not just officials in the professional leagues who hear abuse from spectators but should filter down to youth level, for example, if officials hear homophobic terms used by parents.

In 2012, the committee’s report on racism in sport found that homophobia was emerging as a “bigger problem in football than racism and other forms of discrimination”. Research at the time found that 25 per cent of fans thought that homophobia was present in football, compared to 10 per cent who thought that racism was. A recent Stonewall survey reported that 72 per cent of football fans have heard homophobic abuse, and it is notable that there is not one “out” footballer in the men’s professional game.

The committee found some examples of good practice, for example in rugby: when Welsh international rugby referee Nigel Owens was subjected to ‘foul-mouthed, racist, homophobic abuse’ at a match the two fans involved were banned for two years and ordered to pay £1,000 to a charity of Owens’ choice.

But despite this type of positive action by a number of governing bodies, attitudes in sport across all levels – and especially in football – are out of step with wider society. The ever-increasing LGB visibility within sport is welcome and many sports, particularly rugby, have made significant progress in this respect, and in taking a hard line on homophobic behaviour. But homophobic abuse is still too often allowed to pass unchallenged. The committee was particularly disturbed by the inclusion of boxer Tyson Fury in the shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year and this became one of the spurs for conducting the inquiry. The inclusion of Fury, said the committee, despite a series of violently homophobic remarks, is symptomatic of homophobia not being taken seriously enough in sport, or the media that shows it. The committee queried the judgment of BBC executives in including Fury on the shortlist, and was very dissatisfied with BBC Director-General Lord Hall’s response to the controversy.

The committee also said national governing bodies should step up their commitment to anti-homophobic campaigns, giving greater funds and resources to visible interventions like Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign. This should incorporate television and cinema advertisements, screens at football matches and outside advertising such as bus-stop advertisements. This must be a sustained effort over a significant period of time, rather than a short-term commitment. There is also a role for “straight allies” – straight players who act as champions for the cause and participate in education programmes and campaigns.

In British football, where there are currently no openly gay male players in the professional leagues, more should be done to show support for athletes who want to come out. This could include clubs and major sportswear brands stating their support for gay athletes and writing into their agreements with players, that there would be no termination or downgrading of their contracts as a result of a player coming out.

Committee chair Damian Collins said: “From the evidence we have received in this inquiry, we believe that there are many gay athletes who have not come out, because they are frightened of the impact this decision will have on their careers, and the lives of the people they love. That is not acceptable and should not be tolerated.

“Coming out is a personal and private decision and no sportsperson should feel under pressure or feel ‘forced’ to come out, but sports authorities must create an environment, in the stadium and the locker room, where players and athletes at all levels feel it is a choice they can make, and that they will be supported and accepted if they do.

“More needs to be done by the authorities to address both the overt and latent homophobia that exists within sport. Homophobic abuse in sports grounds is just as intolerable as racist behaviour and should dealt with as severely. Clubs should also look to their own internal
culture, and consider whether it would appear supportive to gay athletes.

“Sports clubs are responsible for the wellbeing of their players: coaches and managers must make it clear that homophobic language cannot be used without comment or redress, just as they should not allow racist behaviour to go without reprimand.

“Sanctions appear to be left to the discretion of the club or governing body involved: a zero-tolerance approach to the use of all homophobic language and behaviours must be implemented with standardised sanctions across all sports. This tougher approach across the board would go some way towards sending a clear message that the issue will no longer be ignored.”