Motherwell: Making a YouTube Stand Against Racism

by | Apr 1, 2021

Last week, I wrote of my “delight” if my cynicism about Scottish Premiership club Motherwell’s players refusing to ‘take the knee’ was “wildly misplaced.” This week, because I was wrong last week, I AM delighted.

In their statement explaining their decision to stand instead of kneel before games, they expressed their wish for “those in power to take real and immediate action on racism.” And I believed that their plans “to FORCE ‘those in power to take real and immediate action’ would “remain to be seen for some time to come.”

What has been seen, though not nearly widely enough yet, is a video posted on the club’s YouTube channel. On 15th March, as part of the club’s documentary series “Inside Motherwell E17,” the club filmed four of their players – Devante Cole, Charles Dunne, Bevis Mugabi and Sherwin Seedorf – in a ten-minute edit of an informal but informative conversation about their experiences of racism and what they believe needs to be done to eradicate it from football.

The clip first appeared on 24th March as the fifth of a five-part video, entitled “Taking a Stand Against Racism,” which takes the viewer through pieces on nutrition, Well’s games against Hibernian and Livingston and midfielder Alan Campbell’s home gym before getting to the players’ conversation. All the pieces are no doubt important to the club but the fifth is no doubt the most important of all, hence the video’s title. Perhaps advised of the poor, to use a modern buzzword, ‘optics’ of this bizarre scheduling, the club posted the conversation as a stand-alone YouTube clip last Thursday, called “’Everyone’s tired of taking the knee.’ Premiership players tackle racism’”.

Cole toured League One before joining Motherwell on loan in 2019. He made a permanent move to Fir Park last year, and has been a regular this season. Dunne’s last two seasons have been injury-stricken and he last played in September 2019. He had a 27-minute cameo for the Republic of Ireland’s under-21s in November 2013. Ugandan international defender Mugabi spent three years at League Two Yeovil Town, arriving at Motherwell in 2019. He has also been a regular this season. Dutch winger Seedorf, a “distant” relation of football superstar Clarence, scored on his Well debut in August 2019 and has been an occasional starter in 2020/21.

Cole insisted immediately that “the UK’s not racist as a whole because you can go to many different places and you’d be embraced,” which a government report commissioned by the…erm…government has this week told us. And a bit later, Dunne evoked an image: “When that umbilical cord gets cut, you’re not racist.”

But the four began in earnest by recalling depressingly familiar tales (despite the report). mostly involving “being a black guy in an OK car.” As Cole observed: “You’re going to feel it even more in a place like Scotland because there’s less black people than there is in England.” And when police pulled him over, “I told him I played for Motherwell and it’s like happy days. That shouldn’t work. If I didn’t we’d probably be having a different conversation.”

More depressing was Seedorf’s later recall of his racist teacher when he was seven years old and didn’t understand why “she always put me in the corner of the room and never used to let me go to the toilet.” This continued for “maybe, seven or eight months. I had to do the year over because I wasn’t educated well.”

The players also recalled their racial abuse at matches, Seedorf while playing for Walsall’s under-23s at Southampton, Cole for Manchester City’s youth team in Spain and Mugabi for Yeovil. The Harrow-born Mugabi was advised to return to his own country while waiting to return to the Yeovil pitch from the sidelines after an in-game injury, which suggests that the abuse may have come from Yeovil fans.

Perhaps the stand-out takeaway from their discussion, though, was that the quartet, aged between 23 and 28, see their generation as the start of the change required to eradicate racism, in football and in life. Some of us might like to think that the most transparent football racism has largely disappeared since the 1970s and 80s (listen to any unadulterated soundtrack of ITV4’s 2007-09 “Big Match Revisited” series for depressing details of those times). But the attitudes prevail. Monkey noises at grounds have simply been replaced by anonymous social media abuse.

Mugabi urged the social media giants to “do something to invalidate these accounts” and stated that the abusers “need to be identified” rather than be let hide behind on-line ‘nicknames.’ “It’s nuts how deep it goes,” Cole noted. “It’s crazy,” Mugabi concurred. And there followed some extensive resigned silence, mixed with sighs all round, which said more than words could about their powerlessness, in the face of social media firms having the power but choosing not to use it.

Social media, of course, pre-dates groups like “Kick Racism out of football/Kick it Out (KIO),” which began in the mid-90s. But the fact of such campaigners then makes it surprising that Cole et al see their generation as starting a process now. Cole’s dad is ex-England striker Andrew, who was racially abused as a player in the 90s and 2000s…and since (two twenty-something Dubliners received short jail terms for racially abusing him in 2013). Yet, KIO etc…were active then. And the some of us who thought racism was dying in football might like to think that KIO started or contributed to the process. Maybe not, if Cole et al are a guide.

Cole senior has in recent years been an outspoken anti-racism campaign advocate. And Devante was the most outspoken in the clip. “And straight away, I’ve just gone to swing and I thought ‘I couldn’t care less what happens’” was his reaction to the Spanish abuse. A team-mate “caught me” before Cole landed anything. But although City had a complaint about the incident upheld, the Spanish club “got a fine, something silly, something like ten grand, something stupid that wasn’t going to affect them.”

This led Cole to prefer a more considered but pro-active approach: “If I get abused tomorrow, I’m not getting on with the game. 1) I’m walking off and 2) I’m doing something about it. It’s the only way. I’m not interested in football after that. I’m going to get more reaction walking off and doing something about it than I would carrying on.”

Little wonder, then, that anti-racism gestures have lost their impact. Dunne was especially dispirited: “Now, it’s just dragging on.” And, he added, correctly, referencing comments made by Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha in February about no longer taking the knee: “When you think about it, he’s right. You don’t have to go on your knees to feel valued.” Cole insisted that “if everyone starts standing,” as Well players are now doing, “the message will come again,” because “for the first two weeks,” taking the knee “was loud and clear.”

He didn’t suggest in the video what course of action might follow if standing started dragging on” which was the root of my cynicism. But the video itself can be presented as the start of such a course. As Dunne said: “We need to keep doing something different, just to keep the questions coming.” As Cole noted, echoing an earlier observation: “Because we’re black guys who play football we’re more accepted. You have to use that.” And, as Dunne and Mugabi combined to conclude, if “just one kid” thought racism was wrong because of the video, “that’s the start.”

Like taking the knee, or standing in solidarity, or any other individual gesture of defiance, this video will only be a small cog in the wheel of eradicating racism from football. And that too is only a small step towards the ultimate goal of eradicating racism as an instinct, institutional or otherwise; making people react to skin colour the way they might react to eye or hair colour. But it is crucial, and compelling, viewing.

As I started this article, the video, in its two formats, had received 2,810 views, 100 likes and, for reasons you would hope are connected to the stuff about nutrition and/or home gyms, three dislikes. As I finished, a day-and-a-bit later, those figures have risen to 3,825 views, 163 likes and, pleasingly, still only three dislikes. Those first two figures need and deserve to be far higher.

Thanks to Gerry McDermott for pointing me in the direction of the video.