Whilst already a difficult year due to the onset of COVID-19, on 25 May 2020 our world changed forever. Handheld technology gave the entire world front-row seats to the brutal murder of George Floyd, where for nine minutes we witnessed a White police officer kneeling on a Black man’s neck, crushing his ability to breathe and taking his life. This occurred despite pleas from passers-by, who had no choice but to stand as witnesses in broad daylight. As I reflect a year on, I recognise the impact it has had on so many people.
George Floyd was not the first Black man to have been killed by the police due to bias, errors, or misjudgement. Sadly, the list of Black lives lost in similar ways is endless, but his death sent ripples across society. The level of brutality that we witnessed acted as a catalyst for individuals, organisations and society to look in the mirror and realise that many of the systems, structures and practices that we have stood behind are unfair and have marginalised certain powerless groups for decades. His death led to a global awakening in a time where people had few distractions due to lockdown. Idle time enabled true self-reflection.
As an individual, the impact of George’s death has been profound. Devastation doesn’t come close to doing justice to how awful I’ve felt. I’ve worked in the equality space for years, so I am no stranger to prejudice or discrimination. Very little surprises me or makes me uncomfortable, but this was different. This was a public lynching by those whose duty it is to protect. For my own mental health, I needed to switch off from the world to process what I’d seen. It felt deeply personal and close to home, as I had the stark realisation that George could easily be my Dad, my cousin, a friend or even myself – and that was all too much. Whilst reflecting, I relived many of my own personal experiences of discrimination and I reminded myself why I am so deeply passionate about eradicating inequality.
I had difficult conversations with friends, sharing my experiences but also challenging assumptions and bursting bubbles of obliviousness. I wept, I grieved, and I mourned. I thought about what I wanted to stand for and I made a commitment that in both my professional and personal life I’d keep fighting for equality.
My role at The FA came up at an opportune time and I decided that it was time to use my passion, knowledge and skills in a different industry that has historically had a reputation for significant challenges with diversity and inclusion. I joined the organisation vowing to try and play my part in influencing, supporting, and driving change across a game that touches so many lives all over the world.
Most, if not all organisations are on a journey in diversity and inclusion, and we are no different. Though I joined the organisation in September 2020, I know that George’s death sparked deep and emotive colleague conversations and most importantly – action. Our senior leaders held listening groups to understand the experiences of Black colleagues both personally and professionally, which led to a deeper understanding of opportunities for improvement and change across the organisation. This has not and will not be a momentary focus and we have already made progress, but we know there’s still more to do.
Leaders continue to learn and educate themselves and there’s been increased commitment to driving change at all levels. Colleague feedback and experiences informed the content of our internal Black Lives Action Plan, which has been developed to continue to improve how we welcome those of Black heritage into every element of our game.
The need to ensure that what we see on the pitch is reflected off the pitch has become a priority. In English football, players come from all backgrounds and communities, but senior leadership and coaching often do not reflect this. This led to the development of the Football Leadership Diversity Code – a commitment made by many clubs and organisations to transparently report progress against recruitment targets.
Over the past 12 months, we’ve had moments of celebration for our organisation, but it hasn’t been without challenge. In November 2020, our Chairman left the organisation after ill-selected and offensive words related to diversity during a Select Committee. This was a significant challenge for the organisation and people were hurt, but we’re clear that his words do not reflect the modern FA. His resignation happened within hours and this reaffirmed that with certain roles comes personal accountability and a level of responsibility as there’s a need to strive towards being proactively anti-racist. For me, this moment reinforced the need to continue to diversify English football at all levels and to welcome those from all backgrounds.
As an organisation, we reiterated our commitment to this agenda through our Time For Change strategy launch, with anti-discrimination as one of our six key transformative game changers. Each of our Directors have accountability for this game changer because improved diversity, inclusion and belonging is a business imperative, at the heart of what we stand for – a game for all.
Black people, like many other marginalised groups, didn’t wake up on 25 May 2020 and have a realisation that inequality exists in the world. We’ve known it for a long time. What changed in 2020 was the heightened awareness of others, many of whom recognised that there are barriers they’d never had to consider, let alone overcome. Decisions were taken irrespective of ethnicity or race to protest against inequality.
In football, our players and match officials have also protested inequality over the past year by taking a knee before matches. This has enabled the world to see that players, as contributory members of our society, also want change. There are those who’ve strived to muddy the narrative by correlating taking the knee with political party alignments. But this is unequivocally untrue and as an employee of The FA – an apolitical organisation – we must continue to educate society and fans on this. We only need to look back in history to see that individuals have been taking the knee for centuries, from 18th and 19th century abolitionism to Martin Luther King Jr and Colin Kaepernick in more recent times.
Taking a knee should be recognised for what it is – a personal choice that footballers and match officials are making to protest symbolically against inequality. Those that choose to ignore this and who boo this symbolism must reflect on the fact that they’re objecting to the right of people who are merely saying that they want a game, and indeed a society, free from discrimination. As the governing body of English football, we will continue to support and offer solidarity to any player who wishes to respectfully and peacefully take a stand.
George’s death has seen a rise in people wanting to be allies and striving to do this through action. We’ve seen protests on a global scale attended by people from all communities, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Black communities and speaking out against structural inequality. This dialogue, recognising lived experiences and approaching difficult conversations with empathy is one of the legacies of this tragedy and I fervently hope that it will propel us forward in creating fairness, justice and equality in society.
Whilst life has continued to move on, I’m not naïve to the fact that this will not have been the case for George Floyd’s family, nor the families of others killed senselessly due to discrimination or inequality. George’s death shone a light on the stark reality that for many people from marginalised or historically underrepresented groups, access to opportunities in society are neither equal nor fair. It is an irrefutable fact that out of an awful tragedy, we’ve birthed hope.
But as we mark this anniversary, we must not forget that this journey is not yet finished. All of us have a critical role to play in working together to eradicate inequality and discrimination. Within our organisation, we must continue to have uncomfortable conversations, educate, question biased actions and challenge others when we see wrong, because we owe it to future generations and our core belief that our game is for all. I know that nothing I say or do will ever bring George back, but I know that we can all do more to make sure that while he was not the first, he is one of the last to experience inequality.
Edleen John is the FA’s Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Director