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Martin Polley, De Monfort University | Fifa Master shows commitment to anti-racist research

As part of this year’s Postgraduate Rankings, SportBusiness is highlighting some of the most important and impactful research to have been produced and published by the institutions we survey. The CIES Fifa Master takes place across three European universities – Neuchâtel in Switzerland, Milan’s SDA Bocconi, and De Monfort in Leicester, England. Professor Martin Polley, director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort, discusses how Fifa Master students at the school have taken a lead on anti-racist research in sport.


Professor Martin Polley (Photo by Demontfort University)

De Montfort University has a huge historical commitment to anti-discrimination in every form imaginable. It’s a very high priority on campus that every population, every community, every individual student is made to feel welcome and protected.

What’s so special about the Fifa Master in that regard is the international spread. In the 20th edition last year, we had a student from Rwanda who was able to bring his experiences of the legacy of the genocide there. We had a student from Israel and a student from Palestine who were able to discuss what has been taught to them through schooling and other settings at home, and how they can look at that differently with different perspectives when they move abroad and think about race in a broader sense. We’ve had black and white Americans in the same room talking about their experiences through this lens. It’s been fantastic for using an academic project with a very resonant personal basis to get students exploring what these issues can mean in their own societies. And then from there, of course we bring it back to sport.

For example, as part of Black History Month we put on a series of events with prominent anti-racist campaigners from within sport, and we made that a compulsory class for the Fifa Master students. We had [Olympic gold medallist 200m runner] Tommie Smith, which was a huge pull, and the important thing there was that he talked about how he didn’t see the salute on the podium at the Mexico ’68 Games as a Black Power salute, but as a human rights salute. We also got [former Liverpool and England footballer] John Barnes, who talked about his experiences as a black man from a relatively elite family background, being the only black kid at the posh schools he went to. He was really encouraging students to think about more than just race; don’t reduce an individual to the colour of their skin, but think about their wider biography when you’re trying to understand their sporting experiences.

One of the most successful pieces of research came from a group made up of a South Korean guy, someone from the Philippines, a girl from the Netherlands, and a guy from Botswana, who collaborated together on a project on how social media can be used both as a channel for racists to express their racism – with all of the usual social media problems about anonymity and relative impunity, and looking at what regulations exist – but also looking at how sports organisations, from clubs right through to international federations, could develop more positive educational materials around racial issues through social media. They looked how authorities could try and combat this not just through punishment and banning people, but also through education, through positive stories.

Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos raise their fists on the podium at the Mexico Olympic Games in 1968 (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The nature of the Fifa Master is that all the final projects have to be interdisciplinary, they have to represent humanities, management and law, and they pulled that off really well. For humanities they were looking at history, language, culture, and how this all comes into play in social media. For management they looked at what leadership can do to try and make social media a better place. And then for the legal aspect, they were looking at legal regulations of hate speech and freedom of speech in different legislative settings, and how social media is a very problematic one, because of its obviously transnational nature. They did a great survey where they had over 300 people from across the industry and elsewhere replying to their questionnaire. They interviewed the head of diversity at the Football Association, figures from Kick It Out and various other anti-racism organisations.

Because the time they were writing was relatively early in the pandemic, they looked the racist trope of how a number of Korean and Japanese footballers were being portrayed as carriers of disease. There was one meme where you had the Spurs team all celebrating around Son and somebody photoshopped face mask on to them for example. The multi-national make-up of the group, meant they were able to bring a postcolonial but also an incredibly progressive political perspective to that conversation.

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