On 26 May 2020, professional football in England resumed after a three-month shutdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK. The disproportionately high COVID-19-related mortality rates among Britain’s black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities prompted some debate among football professionals, journalists and academics as to the potential higher risk ‘project restart’ posed for black professional footballers compared to their white peers (Minhas et al, 2020). Nonetheless, the launch commenced, and fears were alleviated (initially at least) by the implementation of a robust test, track and trace system and by clubs operating extraordinarily high levels of surveillance and control over their players’ daily activities.
On 12 September, the Football Association in England (FA) ‘restarted’ the non-professional format of the game. By comparison, there has been much less public scrutiny of this roll-out, and especially in relation to broader questions around public health. Or to the potential of local football to contribute to the disproportionately high COVID-19 mortality rates among Britain’s minority ethnic communities.
The absence of debate is quite remarkable given that, according to the FA, there are currently over 3,000 non-professional women’s, men’s, youth and mini-soccer football clubs that play on a ‘Saturday’ across England, compared to just 92 professional clubs. This is also surprising given the long history and relationship between local football and Britain’s BAME communities.
Thus far, much of the guidance for clubs operating below the professional level, has focused on safety around the activity of playing. A recent study by the Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond, for example, found that because the majority of contact during a match fell below the 30-second threshold for transmission, outdoor-football is deemed to be remarkably safe for players (Consultancy.co.uk). Undoubtedly influenced by this kind of logic, on 19 August, the FA published its ‘COVID-19 Guidance on Re-Starting Outdoor Competitive Grassroots Football’.
Much of the focus has been on protective measures during and before matches. For example, while contact between competing players during games is permitted, contact for goal-celebrations are not. Likewise, social distancing measures of at least one-metre-plus should be observed by coaches, substitutes and spectators. Where possible, players should walk or cycle to matches. Epidemiologist, Patricia Bruijning asserts that ‘carpooling’ should be removed as an option for getting players to and from matches. Enforcing the majority of these provisions is the responsibility of club officials.
Most local football clubs and organisations operate on the labour of a limited number of dedicated volunteers who often double, triple and quadruple-up on club roles and matchday duties. This reality makes regulating and enforcing the safety measures proffered by the FA extremely difficult. For example, at a recent preseason match I attended, some nine levels below the professional leagues, the home team’s ageing club secretary and designated COVID-19 officer, was simultaneously administrating the match-officials and players, staffing entry into the ground as well as staffing the tea-bar.
All this undoubtedly limited his ability to notice – and stop - the substitutes and coaches of both teams huddling together in their respective dugouts, for the duration of the first-half of the match. So far, there is little evidence to indicate that such safety measures are being strictly and evenly adhered to across this format of the game.
Of course, the failure to follow guidelines fully by club officials, players, coaches, and spectators has to be seen within the context of football as a prized counter-hegemonic space within the local sporting imagination. Local football has a long history of being resistant to policy, which is often seen as the overreach of the State into the private affairs of clubs and how they operate. Resistance to top down policing, in this context, is also undoubtedly bound-up within the politics of youth and masculinity.
Overly simplistic and narrow guidelines on car-use provide us with a useful example of the ways in which these provisions often fail to fully account for the social and economic inequalities that exist between players from different raced and ethnic backgrounds, or for the host of clubs which are connected to specific BAME communities.
Unlike the professional game, non-professional football in England includes organisations and clubs that are symbolically, culturally, demographically, and often quite literally situated within specific minority-ethnic and faith communities across the country. These include clubs such as Highfield Rangers, Leicester Nirvana, Nottingham Cavaliers, IQRA and Guru Arjan Dev Khalsa Sports Club. While clubs seldom operate quota systems, they usually consist of young players from particular BAME communities. For example, London Tigers consists of predominantly local South Asian Bangladeshi volunteers and players.
Race and ethnicity in the UK is a proxy for various social and economic inequalities (that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic). A recent report by the Runnymeade Trust found that all BAME groups had significantly higher poverty rates than British white. Furthermore, Pakistani, black Caribbean and black African households respectively averaged around 55% (£127,000), 70% (£89,000) and 90% (£30,000) less savings than white-British households (£282,000).
In this context, car ownership for parents and young people from these communities is uncommon. For clubs that are predominantly populated with young people from these communities carpooling is not a choice but a necessity. The bi-weekly task of getting squads to away pitches across cities and counties without quite literally packing the few available cars full of players, would mean they would not be able to take part in sporting competitions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there also appears little consideration within ‘project restart’ to the potential of local football to double-up as a conduit for the transmission of COVID-19 directly into the BAME communities that they serve.
Preliminary evidence has indicated that ethnicity is also a proxy for certain structural and health-related conditions of social life, which leave black and south Asian communities in the UK prone to higher than average COVID-19-related mortality rates. For example, BAME communities have higher rates of hypertension and diabetes, which increase the risk of individuals developing complications if infected. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, black males are 4.2 times more likely to die from COVID-19 when compared to white men and women (Minhas et al, 2020).
The relatively low-level risk of transmission when playing outdoors, combined with the generally young age and healthy physical condition of most people that play regular football, suggests that BAME footballers may not be at an especially high risk of possessing the underlying conditions that lead to mortality from coronavirus.
This also means that they are more likely to develop only relatively mild symptoms if infected. The recent infections of high profile professional footballers such as Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and Aymeric Laporte, alongside the quarantine of 300 people that attended a recent charity football match at Burnside Working Men’s Football Club in County Durham, clearly demonstrates that neither BAME (or white) footballers, or those directly or indirectly connected to local clubs, are not immune to the virus. And herein lies the problem for the football authorities.
Local football as a cultural activity is not confined to the 22 players. Nor does it take place in social or spatial vacuums. BAME players and clubs are directly plugged into the very families, households and communities where the impact of COVID-19 is much more lethal, and whom require the most protection. For example, Punjab FC in Gravesend and the Community Relations Football Club in Rugby often operate out of their local Gurdwara and Caribbean Centre respectively, which bring them directly into contact with the communities they serve. And it is in these spaces where an outbreak effecting hundreds of people, like that experienced in the North East, could have the most devasting consequences.
Data have shown us that the relationship between coronavirus and Britain’s BAME communities is complex. A combination of structural, cultural and social inequalities has contributed to the disparity in mortality rates experienced by people of colour in the UK. My own research has detailed the important resistance, integrative and transformative functions of local football for BAME individuals and communities since their arrival in significant numbers over half a century ago (Campbell 2019).
Undoubtedly, restarting local football will provide some social, psychological and health related benefits. However, unless careful consideration is given here, local football might also provide another channel through which coronavirus directly reaches our most vulnerable communities and further widen the health related disparities and inequalities that the current pandemic has exposed and exacerbated between Britain’s white and BAME communities.
Campbell, P. I. 2019. 'That black boy's a different class': a historical sociology of the black middle-classes, boundary-work and local football in the British East-Midlands c.1970−2010. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1590028
Consultancy.co.uk. 17 June 2020. Research suggests football can be played safely during Covid-19.
Minhas, J. S., Martin, C. A., Campbell, P. I & Pareek, M. 16 August 2020. Project Restart and COVID-19 – how do we reduce risk for ethnic minority athletes? British Journal Of Sports Medicine Blog.
Blog post by Paul Ian Campbell, University of Leicester, UK
‘That black boy’s different class!’: a historical sociology of the black middle-classes, boundary-work and local football in the British East-Midlands c.1970−2010
‘Is it because I’m black?’: personal reflections on Stuart Hall’s memoir Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands
Inhabiting the diasporic habitus: on Stuart Hall's Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands
The stigma of being Black in Britain