Anyone that knows me or has even briefly met me will know just how much of a passion I have for sport. Watching, playing, reading about it. I can’t get enough of it. Like many, I have been absolutely starved since we went into lockdown almost three months ago. As such, the return of the Premier League last Wednesday felt like finding a natural spring after wandering through the Sahara desert for weeks. I’ve been lucky enough to witness genuine jaw-dropping moments in sport – Jessica Ennis-Hill kicking for home in the 800m at the London Olympics, Jonny Wilkinson’s last minute drop goal to win the Rugby World Cup in 2003, Helen Housby’s buzzer beater to win gold for the England Netball team at the Commonwealth Games a couple of years ago, AGUEROOOOOOOOOOO…. There are too many to list.
However, even though I was beyond excited to see the return of sport, in all honesty, I wasn’t really expecting a “jaw-dropper” in Aston Villa vs Sheffield United in an empty stadium. I was wrong. As Michael Oliver blew the whistle to restart the Premier League season, the ball wasn’t kicked. All players, staff and officials dropped to one knee to in a sign of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Although all players had had their names replaced on their shirts with “Black Lives Matter”, no-one was expecting this. It was poignant. It was progressive. As a white male, it gave me impetus to educate myself more about the movement and what I can do to be part of the solution, not the problem. I was proud that one of the sports that I love, and one of the sports that has historically been most equated with racism, seemed to be using its position and actually DOING something to address the issue.
In the last seven days, the actions of the players and officials at Villa Park have been replicated at all subsequent matches. However, last night as Manchester City lined up against Burnley, my jaw dropped again. And for all the wrong reasons.
A very small minority of Burnley fans decided to hire a plane and fly it over the Etihad Stadium with the banner “White Lives Matter Burnley” trailing. I’m not going to dwell on the action, as I don’t want to give it any more exposure beyond the facts. But I was shocked. I was angry. I was sad. Since the tragic death of George Floyd, we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement rightly thrust into the limelight and people and brands alike have reacted. And to see that just made my heart sink. The progression that has been made seemed to vanish in an instant.
Burnley, as a town, has struggled with racism. According to the most recent Census, 10.7 percent of its population is Asian – nearly double that of the average of the North West of England. The Muslim community accounts for one in ten (9.9 percent) of people in Burnley, again almost double that of the average of the North West (5.1 percent). Nineteen years ago today it saw inter-racial violence in the town, which left cars, houses and shops ablaze. In 2019, the Home Office noted that Burnley fans had been accused of 15 count of racist abuse in the previous season, more than any other team in the football league.
However, football is the ultimate leveller. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, where you are from, what you believe, the love for the game is equal. And Burnley Football Club needs to harness this passion.
So what can Burnley FC do? This is a great time to remind myself of one of the most crucial tenets of reputational communications. Audiences don’t want to hear brands and organisations SAY they are going to address an issue or it’s on their radar to look at it. They want to see what brands actually DO.
Regarding Burnley FC’s response, I was impressed with its immediate reaction. It had released a statement before the match had even ended, condemning the actions and stressing that they do not represent the beliefs of the club or the vast majority of its fans. Credit must also go to the club’s captain, Ben Mee. Despite having been on the end of a hiding from Manchester City, he came out to speak to Sky Sports and eloquently enforced that this is not what he, Burnley FC or the Premier League are looking to achieve or what they are about. It could have been tempting to “gather the facts” before saying anything, but Burnley FC didn’t and, in this instance, I believe that was the right decision.
It’s what happens next that counts. And, despite a Premier League club being tarred with a racist brush of a very small number of fans, I believe they have an opportunity.
I believe they can use those despicable actions to be more progressive. Burnley FC is currently in the spotlight in the conversation about racism. If I were part of their comms team, I would be working with everyone in the club to work out what they could DO in reaction to this. I would use this plane’s banner to demonstrate how Burnley FC stands against racism – whether it is outlining how it will help to educate its community about racism. The vast majority of Burnley FC fans ,who were likely appalled by this plane banner, may want to do something and support the cause but don’t know where to start. How can Burnley FC provide resources to help them learn and therefore disassociate themselves from these few? The fact the club has been unwillingly and unfairly thrust into the spotlight has to be an opportunity for them to take. And I would urge them to do so.
Maybe I am still angry when I am typing this, but it would give me great satisfaction to know that the abhorrent actions of those few “fans” have actually HELPED in the fight against systemic racism. And, as a comms professional, it gives me hope that our profession can play its part in the movement for a long time to come.