Farewell then, Greg Clarke. You were The One Who Said Stupid Stuff. Not to be confused with The One Who Also Said Stupid Stuff. Not to mention the one at the other place with the inappropriate text messages. Or the one who tried to change stuff but eventually gave up. Or the one who resigned in frustration. Not forgetting the one who had an embarrassing, but ultimately irrelevant, office affair.
You get the leaders you deserve, it is often said. Scanning the indecorous modern history of English football administration it is tempting to wonder what crime, what appalling feat of moral indecency, the national sport has committed to deserve this. The resignation of FA chairman Clarke on Tuesday evening was inevitable after his disastrous appearance before MPs that afternoon. This was a performance so ill-judged, so brain-manglingly stupid that words such as laughable or clown-like fail to do it justice.
To insult just one under-represented section of football’s parish with words better suited to a laughter-tracked 1970s sitcom could be considered careless. To insult another – The Gays: Just Playing Silly Buggers – in the same brief public appearance looks like compound idiocy. To insult a third – The Women: delicate flowers – at the same time looks like some kind of pathological condition or, at best, a piece of satirical performance art, Borat in a blazer.
Sadly, Clarke is not a clown. This is real. He is, or was, the chairman of the body that oversees England’s beloved, cherished, flawed, but vital game. In this role he was appointed, enabled and tolerated by everybody else who remains in the FA’s executive tier. If Clarke talks like this in front of politicians with cameras present, just imagine what he’s like in private.
It is still necessary to be very clear about these things. Does it matter if a man in his 60s uses the wrong words? For all the shared outrage on your timeline, there will be plenty who say this is not the problem it seems. They will argue using outdated language while trying to express broadly sympathetic and progressive ideas should not be a sacking offence.
The case for Clarke’s defence, then. When he referred to “coloured footballers” (to be clear: in the year 2020) he was, in fairness, trying to express sympathy with those who suffer structural barriers. When he previously described institutional racism and bullying allegations in the Eni Aluko case as “fluff” he was referring to the specific allegations in that case, not to the general concepts. This may be true. It is also irrelevant, as Clarke’s own resignation does at least acknowledge.
Words speak to deeper truths – and this is a note of progress to be absorbed, in particular by those above a certain age. Conquering racism, sexism or homophobia is not simply a matter of eradicating outright abuse, of ceasing to be the golf club sex pest, of retiring your Larry Grayson. Beyond the words is a reality of hard, ossified structures and an obligation among those in power to approach these with kindness, leadership and a will to go further, to raise the bar higher all the time.
This is doubly, triply the case for those in power in sport. Words like these from Clarke’s office have a structural significance; not micro-aggressions but macro-aggressions. For the head man at the FA not to get this is like the CEO of Apple not knowing how to turn on his Mac.
And so we come back to sport, to football, and to those old familiar questions. It is a constant source of bafflement that inequalities of opportunity and resources should still exist within English football, which has everything – finances, a captive audience – but which still seems to function so narrowly. Why are grassroots facilities so poorly provided when they should be exemplary? Why is women’s football, the football of half the populace, playing catch-up to such a degree? Why are there so few people of south Asian heritage in the sport? Why are black administrators and managers still so scarce? Why don’t these issues ever simply go away? Or in other words – the words of the newly departed FA chairman – why are coloured people and cowardly chicks so under-represented in my organisation? Beats me, old chap. Beats me.
This is the wider issue. In so much of UK sport the management tier does not represent either those it should serve or indeed the whole point of the activity. It is worth noting Clarke’s qualifications for running English football, for taking on a role that is at bottom a matter of public service. Clarke is involved in private equity. Clarke worked for Lend Lease and Cable & Wireless. He served on the board of Bupa. A successful career in monetising goods and services: but this has little to do with the social goals of a not-for-profit body charged with nourishing the shared sporting health of the nation.
Until UK sport stops putting semi-retired sales and business people in its most senior positions it will continue to fulfil only one aspect of its remit. These are not sales roles. They affect how we function, how we feel, and despite what the 1980s might have told us, the world is not simply made up of customers and shareholders.
Sport has been geared this way since the 1990s, when business people as managers seemed an attractive alternative to “the Blazers”, cobwebbed committee men with their own sinecures to protect. So we got a shot of ageing self-made Thatcherite energy. We got Giles Clarke instead of rhubarb and custard ties, Greg Clarke instead of Bert Millichip and submission to the idea those who have been forceful enough to join the executive class must be best qualified to run all things, that the skills set of a commodity trader is transferable to industries where the public good is involved.
By their resignation notes shall we know them. Clarke didn’t even get this right, producing an equivocal non-apology that suggested leaving the office he has seriously harmed with his comments was his own idea.
For now his departure may feel like progress, but until there is structural, and indeed philosophical change, in the notion of what successful leadership looks like, it is likely to be little more than a change of name on the door.