Peter Herbert on plans for a breakaway black football players’ association

Professional footballers have been involved in preliminary discussions about setting up a black players’ association with the help of the Society of Black Lawyers (SBL), following a series of racism scandals in the sport, writes Elizabeth Davidson.

Discussions are at an ‘early stage’ and involve ‘only a small number of players and football industry staff’, according to SBL chair and well-known human rights barrister Peter Herbert. He says US lawyers have also taken part in talks about setting up the association, which would represent black players’ interests, negotiate with the FA and FIFA to combat racism and set targets for the ‘recruitment and retention of managers’. Further talks are due to take place at the end of the month.

Herbert says they would eventually hope to extend the association across the whole of Europe. What happens with the association ‘is up to black players’, he says. The players will need to decide how it is funded, although football is a wealthy sport so finance is unlikely to be a major stumbling block. Similarly, when it is set up ‘depends on those taking part’.

‘It will not be this year,’ Herbert comments. ‘It needs to be set up slowly and properly. It’s about commitment. It needs to make real progress, and not just be a talking shop or all about self-promotion. Having elections may help it do that. It needs to be democratic and accountable, open and transparent.’

Peter Herbert talking at a Race for Justice event


Herbert continues: ‘We would expect some involvement by US civil rights lawyers. Historically, there has been a close connection between the civil rights movement in the US and the sports industries. Jackie Robinson [the first black major league US baseball player] paid part of the bail money to get Dr Martin Luther King out of prison [in 1963].’

Herbert declines to name any players involved.

‘We will not get unanimous involvement because you never do – some people won’t want to step forward,’ he says.

‘There is some opposition to it, but the reaction of the tabloids to “black” anything is horror, and the fact it is “black” and to do with a multi-million pound industry makes it worse.

‘It’s like the Black Police Association. The police were opposed to that at the start, but now they support it. The SBL has made real progress. About 12 per cent of solicitors and ten per cent of barristers are black. That is higher than any other profession, apart from the medical profession.’

Kick it out
Football has been hit by a series of disturbing race-related incidents in the last year. England Under-21s player Danny Rose was subjected to racist abuse from Serbian fans at a match earlier this month, which the Serbian FA has refused to acknowledge.

Last season, Chelsea captain John Terry made racist comments on-field to QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, for which he was given a four-match ban and stripped of the England captaincy, and which sparked still ongoing and divisive rows over the way the incident was treated. Critics argued Terry was treated too leniently, while many black players are reported to have felt let down by the FA.

Kick It Out – the anti-racist football organisation – has been criticised as ineffective, leading Rio Ferdinand (brother of Anton) and more than 30 other players to refuse to wear the Kick It Out armbands recently in protest. The brothers have since issued a statement backing the organisation.

Herbert praises Kick It Out. ‘It has done some excellent work and we will be building on the work it has done, but sometimes things need to be taken to a different level. As lawyers we have a fairly low tolerance for unlawful activities. We know the system, we know how to put teeth into what we do, and we know when to push the boundary and when to negotiate.’

The SBL is concerned about the racist abuse incident in Serbia. It is planning to hold a seminar on the issue next year with ‘leading players and managers’, and is making ‘direct representations’ to the Serbian government.

Herbert was far from impressed by the way the Foreign Office handled the incident.

‘It should have made formal representations to the Serbian government and made a complaint to the Ambassador in London,’ he says.

‘Hundreds of people watched a hate crime being committed and nothing was done. That is a failure of government. We will be making representations to the Foreign Office. We are considering what to do, and will also be asking for this issue to be raised in Parliament. There is international law, and there is an international criminal court.’

‘It is a very public forum,’ the lawyer continues. ‘Thousands of people in a stadium when a hate crime takes place, and so the impact of that is huge on the person involved. It is seen and then goes unpunished, which encourages those who think that is acceptable.’

As far as the aims of the black players’ association is concerned, Herbert has a shopping list.

It includes: making sure black players, football industry staff and spectators can travel freely within Europe without suffering racial abuse; having effective sanctions in place for those who commit that abuse; setting targets in the UK and possibly Europe for black managers and black representation in the industry; and having systems and penalties in place for racism so that the individuals concerned are suspended.

Meanwhile, the SBL is working on minimising the impact of LASPO on black and minority ethnic lawyers, who are likely to be particularly badly hit by the legal aid cuts. Herbert believes many black practitioners could be put out of practice by the changes, and is currently in discussion with the Solicitors Regulation Authority over ways to monitor the changes and their impact on black and minority ethnic lawyers.


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