The Importance of Ethics | A Lesson From Football

As time goes by you begin to wonder how much lower football can go in terms of its relentless march toward moral and ethical self-destruction. Corruption at FIFA, transfer bungs and the resignation of the England Manager. Worst of all, a major paedophilia scandal that may be worse than the Jimmy Savile case recently became public. It is hard to see how things could be any worse for the game right now.

The former player to fully break the paedophilia in football story, Andy Woodward has to be admired for putting his head above the parapet to publicise this terrible issue. He has chosen a one-way path that will inevitably see this still developing story follow him to his grave. It would of course have done this anyway so in many ways he probably had no real choice.  

What is particularly tragic and upsetting about the revelations that Andy Woodward -and now many others- have subsequently highlighted is that, like Savile, the problem was seemingly allowed to develop not due to ignorance within footballing circles but instead due to at best apathy and, quite possibly it seems, by leaders turning a blind eye. The issues now being raised could have been dealt with quickly and robustly had the firm desire existed. So why did this happen?

In 1999 I wrote a dissertation for my first degree entitled “Racism and the Social and Cultural Impact of Black Footballers“. As part of my research I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing several prominent black footballers who lived and played through the worst of football’s racist nadir years in the 70s, 80s and, to a lesser extent, 90s. Interviewees included Brendon Batson, one of West Bromwich Albion’s famous “Three Degrees”, Joe Cooke of Bradford City and Dave Hanson who was a key member of the very successful Halifax Town side I followed at the time and who won the Vauxhall Conference in 1998 with several games to spare.

Over 18 years ago Batson, Cooke and Hanson told me about their experiences of playing in the aggressive, male-centric world of football and the many outrageous things they experienced. Monkey chanting, being spat at by spectators and having their families hounded out of the stadiums they were playing in were fairly typical experiences for Batson and Cooke. If they had the “temerity” to raise concerns they were generally told by leaders within the game to grow a thicker skin and get on with it. The culture of football at that time chose to normalise abnormal behaviours. Primarily it seems to me for reasons of convenience.

Time has only to some extent changed the situation. Black players are now commonplace within the game and racist chanting is less prevalent- in the UK at least. Homophobic, misogynism and other kinds of abuse are however still widespread. I know it is as I’ve seen and heard it myself. Moreover, there is still a notable absence of black managers and black senior leaders within the game and amount of Asian players -particularly from the Indian subcontinent- is still low to non-existent at most clubs. In terms of gay footballers there are no openly gay footballers currently playing in the top four English divisions. In fact there are none in any professional or semi- professional teams that I can think of. What does all this say about the current state of the national game and the way it reflects wider society?

Football is frequently used for management analogies. I use them all the time myself and the game can be a great way of simplifying otherwise complex ideas. Sadly football is also a microcosm of society in a wider sense. Many of the conveyor belt of negative incidents, associated behaviours and incredible revelations that we have seen in recent times are also metaphorical both of organisational cultures found in workplaces and wider society generally. 

It is said, with fair reason, that money is the route cause of all evil. This is certainly, in my opinion, the principle issue in football right now and it has been for as long as I have had any interest in the game. In organisations, the concentration of power and reward strategies in to hands of small and often quasi or almost totally unaccountable groups can also easily have some of the same negative outcomes found in football. For example in terms of the normalisation of deviant employee behaviour and development of destructive and toxic employment cultures. A senior leader who deliberately or inadvertently places profit above ethics and morality can easily excuse and even encourage unacceptable practises and behaviours irrespective of what HR, the law or anyone else would expect to see happening.

Like HR, the legal profession in particular has a key role to play in ensuring that justice is achieved even where commercial interests have to be relegated in terms of their importance. It is an uncomfortable question to ask but how many legal professionals contributed to Savile’s activities or the abuse culture in football? How many have facilitated the gagging of legitimate whistleblowers by legalistic bullying, injunctions and coercive settlement agreements? It all went wrong somewhere down the line and the endless procession of scandals we are now seeing across society bears testimony to this.

So it is now the challenge of the good professionals in football, HR, the legal profession and many others to promote the agenda of morality, ethics and justice. The past cannot be changed but the future can be better if forces for good prevail. I am no idealist. But I do believe that good can prevail in the end albeit with a fair wind.

I hope Andy Woodward and the many others like him who have suffered so badly get the justice they deserve. I hope that the due legal process is actually a fair one that leads to severe criminal and financial penalties for any club or indeed individual who failed in their duty of care toward vulnerable young men. I also hope that the microcosm of our society that is football can somehow improve its deeply damaged image and show any culturally flawed organisation operating within UK PLC the importance of cherishing and positively developing operational culture for the benefit of all employees and not simply the personal self-interest of the select few. It’s an almost impossible task that Andy Woodward and others have so bravely started but it has to be worth pursuing. I wish them every success.

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