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It’s not personal, Frank — It’s structural

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Football isn’t a meritocracy, especially when it comes to race and leadership

Soccer - FIFA World Cup 2014 - Group D - Uruguay v England - Day Two - England Training and Press Conference - Urca Military Training Ground Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

To claim that Frank Lampard did not have to work hard to become a legend of the sport as a player, and a very good coach already at this point of his career, would be foolish from anyone. But, Lampard might have been just as foolish by taking Raheem Sterling quotes at a personal level – even if journalists probing him were less than wholly accurate in recounting what Sterling said in the first place.

In his interview earlier this month with the BBC, Sterling listed Lampard as an example alongside former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard, comparing them with two Black coaches, Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell, who have not had the same degree of opportunity afforded to them as their England legend counterparts — they have not gotten the same amount of trust and openness from those who ultimately make most of the meaningful decisions in the sport: chairmen and directors at The FA and club levels.

This wasn’t personal against Frank Lampard, but he took it like that anyway. He did not read the room, the ongoing protests around the world, the voices who have been clear and loud in saying that yes, most of us are oppressed and depressed by system; the colour of your skin certainly makes it harder for BIPOC people to get into positions such as his.

Lampard could have acknowledged the systematic problems further by saying that yes, he is partly a product of these structures as is any other person, including the few BIPOC who get to his position — there are, at last count, only 6 Black coaches among the 91 in the top four divisions of English football. But it seems that Lampard, who is certainly not alone in this failure, is unable to admit that he, Gerrard, and many others before him had it much easier than other former players from minority backgrounds who were also hopeful of becoming head coaches but could not advance that far because of structural (and conjunctural) problems.

As a player, you “only” need to be talented, hard-working and useful on the pitch. A completely different set of skills that gets (or should be) evaluated at the managerial level. In the search for a head coach, clubs often act like HR departments looking for new department leaders. And it is not surprising that there is a lot of bias in the process.

It is something that a Rooney Rule similar to the NFL’s could help address, but it is far from a guarantee. This will still only reward those BIPOC coach hopefuls with “acting white”, as it is the case in education and most professional areas. Exhibit the slightest bit of “eccentricity” while being a minority, and you are out of the competition — or the field, even.

It is promising to see more people from minority backgrounds getting degrees in fields which they have been denied the opportunity to do so in the past, as they will (presumably) enter the consideration of future employers to access positions of power in which they can help achieve some of the most needed reforms all of our industries need. This however will not eliminate the need for them to work twice as hard to get anywhere near their white peers.

This has been an ongoing discussion in my field, Economics, which is arguably the most conservative in terms of its academics. The three leaders of United States’ regional Federal Reserve banks across history who happened to be black are all PhDs in the field, whereas their white counterparts might not even be economists. And statistically, a Black person in the same United States has to have a Master’s or a PhD to earn a similar income as a white person with only an undergraduate degree. That’s not to mention the huge disparities in wealth between Black and white people in the country, both on average and as a median; and the persistence of double the unemployment rates for Black people throughout the country’s history.

These issues are certainly not isolated to Economics, nor to the United States who just happen to have such data available by a few clicks. It is rather a structural and global problem that has allowed the accumulation of wealth, inequalities, racial and social disparities, and so many other issues. Such issues will not be addressed by people who take it personally when they are listed as the outcome — not a source, an outcome — of this equation.

As far as we know, Frank Lampard is not working actively against such changes. Perhaps he is indeed a supporter of them. But addressing these issues will not be comfortable, no matter what, especially as it destroys this view of the world of football as the primary example of a meritocracy, and reminds us other major issues prevalent in the sport as well, such as homophobia or the enduring permanence of racist supporters and supporter groups all over the world.

All in all, I am just disappointed with the Chelsea legend’s response. Lampard will remain in high regard as a head coach in tactics, training, squad selections and everything else as it pertains to the game on the pitch. But I will not, and probably should not, be looking at him as the example of an ally in this fight against structural racism in the United Kingdom and beyond.