We need to reflect on the role we can play as individuals to make football everybody’s game – for players, fans and those working behind the scenes. The concept of allyship gives us the key to do this. As defined by the Anti-oppression Network, allyship means an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.
What form should allyship take in football? For it to be truly effective in bringing about the change we need to see, we must move beyond slogans and branding. We cannot be an ally only when incidents arise; it demands our constant attention. Whilst allyship should be visible, its meaningful practice is introspective: it takes place when nobody is watching. Allies should speak up about every act of abuse but also recognise that discrimination and oppression run through every sphere of our society.
Discrimination is a daily battle many must contend with, and allies’ voices can be the strongest weapons in the fight. We must continue to speak up and challenge incidents of discrimination that happen out in the open, centering those who have suffered and being the supporters they need us to be. We also need to go one step further and use our voice behind the scenes – especially to call out those who have influence or power. It is much harder for someone at the receiving end of discrimination to face the repercussions that often come with challenging the perpetrator. Allyship shouldn’t be limited to those players with a public profile; allies across the whole of football should stand up to challenge unfair treatment and abuse, from the usual debates that surround the hiring of managers, players and other staff to the daily banter that crosses the line and stereotypes others. Silence and inaction keep the status quo in place.
Just as different forms of discrimination affect people in different ways, allyship is not a ‘one size fits all’. Allyship that doesn’t respond to all the nuances of discrimination as it spreads through football and society will be ineffective and cause more harm than good. For example, by advocating separately for LGBTQ+ people or Black people or women, we ignore the ways in which homophobia/biphobia/transphobia, racism and sexism overlap and have a multi-layered impact. We can experience the advantages of privilege in one aspect of our identity but also face marginalization in another. This is why we must remain advocates both within and outside our communities, and speak for those who are most marginalized.
Allyship asks us to take risks; it is never easy. True allyship in football demands that we seek out opportunities that lead to change. We need to commit time and make sacrifices so that we take part in work that addresses discrimination and marginalization. That work means educating both ourselves and others without asking those who suffer discrimination to be the teachers. We cannot allow ourselves to see discrimination and oppression as something that is happening somewhere else; we must accept our responsibility to gain awareness of behaviours, practices and language and to correct them.
Meaningful allyship demands a sense of purpose. We have to show up every day, ready to learn and ready to act. Allyship is a journey that is never complete. We will always have more to learn and share with those who walk the same path.