Football must seize this chance to look beyond the stale, male and pale

The FA, Premier League and PFA all have senior appointments pending and this time should take diversity seriously

Everton v Manchester United
Marcus Rashford of Manchester United takes on Everton’s Abdoluaye Doucoure and Séamus Coleman. A third of male professionals in England are black but this diversity is not reflected in boardrooms. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Greg Clarke is gone but football’s deep-rooted issues remain. The leadership of football – across all the authorities – is not fit for purpose.

Following the former Football Association chairman’s confused performance at the select committee this week – that offended women, the black, Asian and LGBT+ communities – the focus has rightly returned to the significant challenge of how we identify credible and relevant leaders to drive the sport forward.

How can a sport with such diverse talent and followings have next to no diverse representation at the decision-making level? It is unacceptable and frankly, for the health of the national sport, needs to change.

A third of the professional players in the men’s game are black. That same talent is driving £1bn revenue a season, a third of the reported total TV revenue for the Premier League. And yet the black community barely has a say at the decision-making table, when you consider the boards and leadership teams of the governing bodies, clubs and leagues.

Across the 92 league clubs black influence at the top is scarce. There is Ben Robinson at Burton Albion – the only ever black British chairman. Elsewhere, The FA has recently appointed Edleen John on to its leadership team and Bobby Barnes is the deputy chief executive at the Professional Footballers’ Association. Paul Elliott is an observer on the FA board, but holds no voting powers, and the Premier League has Paul Cleal as a diversity adviser to the board. Overall it is a very grim picture for the black community.

Since the McKinsey report was published in 2014, making the case that diversity leads to better business, we have known that a leadership team that is pale, male and stale will not yield optimum results. And still football has dragged its feet towards change.

This is where the timing of this discussion could not be better. The FA, Premier League and PFA all have key appointments to make over the next few weeks and months at the top of their organisations.

The FA is searching for a new chair while the Premier League will soon require a new executive director and the PFA will be appointing a new chief executive.

Paul Elliott
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Paul Elliott is on the FA board as an observer but has no voting powers. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Right now the executive search companies are rubbing their hands. But I have serious concerns over who the football authorities will engage to identify the best talent for these roles? Will it be the same old companies, who have failed time and time again over decades, to deliver diversity? Or will the football authorities recognise their errors and do things differently?

For many the methodology for finding the next PFA chief executive has been a concern. An all-white and all-male panel is leading the search to represent an association where one in three of its members are black and which serves the women’s professional game.

I am often told there are no strong candidates from black and Asian backgrounds. My response? The game needs to move away from a system that only recognises talent from a white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied perspective. When we say we want “the best” candidate, whose definition of best are we talking about?

All the academic studies on diversity tell us that we recruit in our own image. So if the decision-makers are all white and male it is no surprise that, time and again, they opt for another version of themselves. A thorough and transparent recruitment process needs a diverse group of people involved to give all candidates a fair chance.

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It is also repeatedly said that there just aren’t any diverse candidates out there. I am not convinced this is the case. Having been one of the founding members of the “On The Board” corporate governance course that the PFA funds, I have seen the talent and felt their ambition to make the sport better.

But I would also urge the game to look outside of football. There are plenty of strong diverse candidates from a wide range of sectors that the industry should be trying to attract.

I’ll conclude with a freebie for the executive search companies being tasked with finding diverse candidates. One former black player working in the administration of the game who is well respected, experienced, charismatic and relevant to all the stakeholders in football is Jason Roberts. He is the current director of development at Concacaf.

He would transform the PFA, FA or Premier League immediately. I have no idea if he would leave an incredible position and life in Miami to help fix English football. The very fact he had to leave these shores to find an administrative role says a lot in itself. But someone should at least ask the question.

Diversity means better business. How much longer must football wait?

Leon Mann is a founder of the Football Black List and BCOMS