‘Fantastic to see more people recognised by Football Black List’

“I love the Football Black List – it allows us to have visibility in areas that aren’t always promoted.”

Anita Asante has won an impressive array of club honours – including the Quadruple with Arsenal in 2007 – and over 70 international caps for her country.

But being named on the Football Black List, for the second time in her career, is an accolade she is particularly proud of. The FBL is a Premier League-backed initiative that recognises positive influencers from the Black community in the sport.

Ahead of Thursday evening’s special online celebration event, available to watch live on Sky Sports News YouTube from 5pm GMT, the Aston Villa star joined two other women named on the 2021 List – Stonewall’s Liz Ward and Football v Homophobia’s Amy Allard-Dunbar – for a Sky Sports discussion exploring inclusion in the game.

Adjacent to her WSL exploits and her media work, Asante is an advocate for racial equality and LGBTQ+ rights, while also promoting youth organisations such as Goals 4 Girls.

Ward leads the workplace, empowerment and community engagement teams at the charity Stonewall, and also works on the Rainbow Laces campaign.

Based in Edinburgh, Allard-Dunbar is an education officer for the Football v Homophobia Youth Panel, delivering workshops on intersectional topics such as race, sexuality and gender, and regularly taking part in video content and podcast episodes.

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Anita, the Football Black List was started up back in 2008 by sports journalists Leon Mann and Rodney Hinds as a way to showcase the work of influential individuals in the game from black communities. Why is it important to you?

Anita: I attended the 2019 ceremony and felt really lucky to be in a room full of so many inspiring people across different fields in football. The List highlights what people are doing – in some industries, we didn’t have those recognisable faces that we could relate to from our communities and our backgrounds.

It’s been a great project that Leon and Rodney have put together and it’s grown significantly over the years. I think it’s fantastic that it’s getting the recognition it deserves and that so many more people from grassroots to professional spaces are getting recognised themselves for their contributions.

In 2020, an LGBTQ+ Award was introduced, following a suggestion put forward by Jessica Creighton. For the second year running, it’s been won by a campaigner from Football v Homophobia. Congratulations, Amy – what was your reaction upon learning you had won this award?

Amy: It means a lot to me. I saw the email and then looked at who else was listed and I was very surprised and overwhelmed. It’s a huge honour.

In August, you took part in an episode of the Football v Homophobia Podcast titled ‘Racism in Football and Building Safe Spaces’, alongside your award predecessor Annette Nelson from FvH and also activist Sharifa James, who’s part of Gloucestershire FA’s Inclusion Advisory Group. In that episode, you described some of your negative experiences in football. Why was it important to you to be part of that conversation?

Amy: I’m not playing at the moment – I quit because of the homophobia and racism that I was experiencing – so my only role in the game currently is through Football v Homophobia.

It means I get to critique and try to improve football from the outside which for me is healthy and a good position to be in. I think if I did play, I might find it a lot harder to be so open and honest because I know that for a lot of people, when you’re in the game and you have a great team and supportive team-mates etc, it’s easy to get complacent.

When you do speak out, obviously there can be a lot of backlash.

Liz, you’ve been named in the Practitioners category this year through the work that you do with the charity Stonewall. You also play football for Goal Diggers FC. It must have been difficult to learn of Amy’s experiences…

Liz: Yes, I’m grateful to Amy for sharing that and I completely recognise the experience – I was exactly the same. I was about 13 years old when I stopped football because of the very interpersonal homophobia and racism that came from being the only non-white kid in my school that was playing at the time.

For me to now play at a grassroots level with an inclusive team like Goal Diggers FC has connected me to a space of football joy that I didn’t know I could find on the pitch again.

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Liz Ward is a football obsessive – a passion she is able to incorporate into her work with the charity Stonewall

That’s what we put out there in the world – that no matter who you are, where you’re from, what your background is, what your level is, you’ll always be welcome in the game.

As a practitioner, although there’s more representation in football now, these conversations are still difficult particularly for young people. It can be an intimidating world just to walk into, and even more so if you want to speak out on issues or talk about your identity in a way that’s quite exposing.

So as much as there is to celebrate, there’s still a long way to go. The Black List has had a Practitioners category for a few years now. It provides inspiration for people that are working in the game and gives them role models to look up to. I think it’s wonderful.

The ‘Players Off The Pitch’ category recognises black footballers who are using their platforms alongside their ability to address important issues. Anita, in 2021, where have you most been energised to use your voice?

Anita: I’m one of the few players representing the black community at an elite level in the women’s game and I’m seeing fewer footballers like me come through the pathways to that elite. That’s one of the reasons I feel empowered and motivated to keep giving energy to this discussion.

Listening to Liz and Amy, and their stories about not playing in the game for a long time because of their negative experiences, I think it’s important to speak out about sporting environments that aren’t inclusive.

It feels like we’re at a window of opportunity. Lots of things have impacted on the consciousness of society – we talk about George Floyd, and watching our England men at the Euros – and these are bringing the impact of anti-discrimination in our society and sport to the fore again.

We now really have a desire to progress change and that’s long overdue. It’s not just about the playing field being representative, it’s about the structures within football as well.

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Asante scored the only goal of the game as Villa beat rivals Birmingham in a recent WSL away fixture

I’ve had mostly positive experiences but I recognise that it’s not always the safest environment when you don’t have people that you feel you can connect with, or who you might want to share a story with about your experience but who don’t look like you. Often, I’ve been the only person in my locker room or club who’s crossing these intersections.

It’s also about leaving the game in a better place for the next generation. I’m seeing younger people be the voice of change and that inspires me. They have the confidence now to speak up and challenge sports institutions and fight for everybody’s right to play. I won’t stop until we see that happen.

Amy, since having the conversation we mentioned earlier on that FvH Podcast episode in August, have you seen signs of encouragement in football? Liz mentioned Goal Diggers FC in London, and we’ve also seen inclusive clubs for women and non-binary people starting up successfully elsewhere, such as Manchester Laces.

Amy: Yes, having spoken to more people who are creating these spaces and hearing about their positive experiences in football, it wasn’t as doom and gloom as I had thought. It’s encouraged me to want to be more engaged with the game and not just be on the outside.

It’s great to see cities outside of London taking on those groups too. It relies on someone to start the ball rolling, put the time in to create that space, and craft it into something that’s safe in the long term.

I have a skateboarding group here in Edinburgh – it came about by accident without us intending on starting one up! Maybe it could be the blueprint for something football wise. It would be good to see that blossoming in Scotland.

The Rainbow Laces campaign activation is currently underway and one part of that is encouraging people to look at other sports and see what they are doing around inclusion. Liz, where have you seen examples of that?

Liz: It’s a real highlight of my job, getting to talk to the most eclectic collection of sports who are chomping at the bit to tell us about the amazing things they’re doing. During the Olympics in Tokyo, we put out a list of non-Olympic sports that are getting LGBTQ+ inclusion right.

There’s a lot we can learn in football from that – it’s a game that gets into people’s hearts, it crosses class and gender boundaries, the north-south divide, and connects people in a way that’s really special.

You mentioned Manchester Laces earlier – the Laces family of clubs goes across the country and I’m always bigging them up for what they’ve been able to do in grassroots football. Manchester Laces collected and mobilised loads of teams to really hold the FA to account on how young trans players can be involved in the game – the paperwork and bureaucracy that they have to go through that is so unfair.

Seeing teams do that and be a little more activist in their approach is exciting to see, as is this ‘cross pollination’ of inclusion across a spectrum of different sports.

Anita, how might these community clubs be harnessed to help grow representation in the elite women’s game? We know training centres are often less accessible now for people from certain communities…

Anita: I feel that clubs like Goal Diggers and organisations like Football Beyond Borders are filling a void. They’re bringing people together from all walks of life – some who have never played the game before; some playing for years; and people who also want to experience the environment, or work in and around the game.

Realistically, the bigger clubs can do more – they’re often beacons of their communities. I think it’s about them being more proactive and going into the inner city or rural areas, wherever it is, to bridge that gap and work with those smaller clubs that are already doing the basis of that work on the ground.

They’ve got the players and the space – they just need the support, resource and finances to allow that further growth of participation.

I always say that’s what we need but the reason I think it doesn’t happen is because we don’t necessarily have the right people in the room. As a player, I can have the conversations because I’ve lived it. I’ve grown up on an estate – my whole experience of getting to the elite game was by chance, actually – but we can minimise it being just by chance by laying down some solid foundations that help to pick up lots of players.

Until we’ve got people with some of that lived experience who are already engaged with those communities, I fear evolution is going to be too slow.

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Asante is congratulated by her team-mates after heading Villa in front at St Andrew’s on November 14

How can the media help with driving this? Amy, what kind of content will help to push this forward?

Amy: We’ve got young people using social media to produce more accessible, shareable content that’s in our language and that other young people want to digest. That’s one way and it’s very helpful.

But they’ll be watching Sky Sports and other channels too and they’re going to be taking in information from there just as much as they’re going to be taking it in from radical spaces on social.

I think it’s important to balance out the two and carry those messages into the larger media when it comes to football in particular. So much of where fans spend their time is on mainstream sources – to be able to have that information on both of those types of sites is legitimising the grassroots work.

The Football Black List is a great opportunity in the calendar to talk about inclusion in the game. Liz, at Rainbow Laces time, what topics are most pertinent to you?

Liz: We’ve come off a couple of years of actions being deemed by some as ‘gesture politics’, whether that’s taking the knee or putting in a pair of laces. Unfortunately we still live in a society where taking that stand, doing that gesture, is still going to be seen as controversial, and upset certain people.

We’ve also got to this point in football where we’re able to have supporters groups that are doing good work, and more organisations that are trying to make the game inclusive.

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Aston Villa captain Tyrone Mings says players have the power to amplify the message of inclusivity

I think there’s a question now of what it means to thrive as an LGBTQ+ person within this ecosystem – what part of your identity is just accepted or tolerated, and what part is actually celebrated. That’s the place where I want to shift the conversation, so people don’t have to think about whether or not they should hold their partner’s hand in football, or whether or not they’re going to be perceived a certain way, or if they have to moderate their speech.

People who don’t have to think about any of those things could maybe make themselves a little bit more uncomfortable and have conversations that might challenge them, perhaps with others who they watch the game with.

The truth of the matter is, every week, there are still homophobic chants happening in stadiums, and grassroots games that are getting interrupted or even called off because of racist incidents.

Sport and mental health often go hand in hand – they’re great companions – but playing sport can be very stressful, especially at an elite level for individuals that hold various intersecting identities.

So let’s think about what we’re actually doing to ensure that our communities can thrive within the world of sport, as opposed to just existing.

Watch the Football Black List celebration event from 5pm on Thursday, streaming live on Sky Sports News YouTube.

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, currently receiving its annual activation from November 25 to December 12.

Your story of being LGBTQ+ or an ally could help to make sport everyone’s game – please contact us here to discuss further.

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