‘On Mackay and Whelan: Why liberal anti-racism will only take us so far’24 November 2014


With depressing familiarity, yet another powerful figure in football has been shown to hold racist, bigoted beliefs. For Dave Whelan, it wasn’t enough simply to stick two fingers up to the FA’s ongoing investigation into Malky Mackay’s discriminatory text messages and emails by hiring him as Wigan manager – he had to follow it up with his own almost cartoonishly offensive statements, that Jewish people “chase money” and that there is nothing wrong with calling a Chinese person a “chink”.

The cycle has unfolded with grim predictability: powerful man says something racist, outrage ensues, half-hearted non-apology is issued and powerful man’s powerful friends step forward to defend his character (the useful idiot in this case being Steve Bruce). And then everything goes back to normal with football’s racist, sexist and homophobic power structures more entrenched than ever.

While it is important to express revulsion at comments such as Mackay’s and Whelan’s, such a response can only take us so far. If Mackay’s racist texts hadn’t been leaked, would black players stand any better chance of becoming a top coach or manager? If Whelan hadn’t let slip his views about “chinks”, would the Football League be any more inclusive of Chinese people? When the debate becomes purely about whether an individual is or is not racist we lose the opportunity to interrogate the systemic patterns that concentrate power in the hands of a white, heterosexual male footballing elite. It is much more convenient to pretend that views such as Whelan’s are the atavistic bigotry of an old man who has failed to keep up with the times, rather than a reflection of a racist power structure that runs through the heart of football and society at large.

Dave Whelan’s hapless defense of his comments almost invites ridicule. Apparently he can’t be racist or anti-Semitic as he has “thousands” of Jewish friends and regularly holidays in Barbados. And his apology adopted the exculpatory stance of “If anyone takes offence at anything I’ve said, please accept my sincerest apology”, that places the blame firmly on those over-sensitive and easily-offended people that didn’t quite grasp the true meaning of his words. However, even if his apology had been a paragon of contrition, his actions in appointing Mackay before the FA has even ruled on his conduct send a signal to everyone in football that racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes will always be welcome in some quarters. This is far more important than whether he is himself racist or whether he is able to issue an adequate enough apology for letting his mask of respectability slip.

When the dust has settled on this particular episode we will still be facing a situation where black managers are vastly underrepresented, where two thirds of women working in football face workplace sexism, and where a culture of homophobia prevents gay footballers from coming out. Occasionally leaks such as Mackay’s texts and Richard Scudamore’s emails give us a glimpse into the prejudiced attitudes that reinforce these systems of oppression, however in order to dismantle them we need to break the cycle of outrage followed by apology followed by return to the status quo ante. The widespread condemnation of both Mackay and Whelan’s remarks is encouraging, but very little will change without an understanding of the well from which they flow.

From Football Beyond Borders

Joel Sharples is the Football Beyond Borders blog editor.

Mackay and Whelan