"Football is a powerful force and mirrors how society can be better"

Jacco van Sterkenburg and Palesa Mashigo research diversity in football
Aerial view of football stadium De Kuip of Feijenoord in Rotterdam
Jacco van Sterkenburg en Palesa Mashigo 2

Making football more inclusive, that is the goal of Palesa Mashigo and Jacco van Sterkenburg  of Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. Both study diversity in football and developed an online course to help women and people with an ethnic minority background pursue a career in football. 

Jacco and Palesa believe the key to a more diverse sport lies with coaches and other football leaders: "Currently a dazzling 85 to 95 percent of leading positions are taken by white men."

You both study racism and diversity in football. Why is this important?

Jacco: "I think it’s important to study this topic in all domains, but football is very visible. The whole world is watching, so the sport is like a magnifying glass. Football is also multi-ethnic in terms of the players, and racialization is a common issue. At the same time, the sport can be example-setting and bring positive messages."

Palesa: "I grew up in South Africa and there the sport is almost like a religious practice. For fans of the sport it is painful to see discrimination is still happening. Not only is football a powerful force, it also mirrors society and how society can be better."

Supporters at Excelsior protest against racism with flyers and t-shirts with slogans "#I stand up against racism"

What topics do you study during your research?

"We study the ways in which racism operates and try to identify the mechanisms behind it. A very common example is the monkey chants in stadiums, but racism also operates in less visible and more implicit ways. People often say: football is more and more diverse, so what is the problem? But if you look at leadership positions and the coaches, almost all of them are white men from Europe."

Jacco: "We made an inventory of the coaches and people in leadership positions in football to get an idea of the ethnic and gender diversity. We looked at fourteen European countries including the Netherlands. A dazzling 85 to 95 percent of people in leading positions are taken by white men. The percentage of women from an ethnic minority is basically zero."

Why is this problematic?

“This is problematic as the coaches and people on the board have a key position to make the sport more inclusive. We spoke to many leaders in football and even though they recognize the problem, they think it happens elsewhere. Many people in prominent positions, many of them white men with no lived experience of racism, have a blind spot for implicit forms of discrimination. But for people of color, this is very real. They are seen as good and physically strong athletes, but club owners don’t see them as leaders or managers. A frame that is often reproduced in the media."

MOOC and IFlipp project
Both researchers developed a ‘Guide to Diversifying and Transforming Football Leadership’, a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course). This course is a part of the IFlipp project (Innovating Football Leadership: Inclusion through Practice and Policy). The aim of the project is to increase and further enhance leadership skills of women and ethnic minorities in football. You can read more about the results on the recently launched project website.

Palesa: "Some people that we spoke to believe that in football the best people will come through. ‘We are inclusive’ or ‘anyone can climb the ladder’ they say. But in fact, most people don’t have the same opportunities as many of the interviewees had, for example because they don’t have access to the same network. And when they do get a position higher up, they are often confronted with racial stereotypes that Jacco already mentioned."

Jacco van Sterkenburg (ESHCC) poses on the football field leaning against the goal

How do you want to make impact with your research?

Jacco: "Our goal is to make football more inclusive. We work together with major football organizations and are in regular meetings with FIFPRO, Fare, and UEFA. Through this collaboration, we have access to the football industry and bring our findings directly to the field. Furthermore, I contributed to a handbook about ethnic inequality in sports and culture. My chapter is about sports and is mainly targeted at people who work in sports media. Journalists have a responsibility as they reach millions of people with their stories."

You are both involved in a MOOC, can you tell us more about that?

"In the MOOC, we want to give people insight into the skewed diversity numbers and organizational structures, but also have people tell about their experiences firsthand. This could be a person of color who is a leader in football, or people with this ambition who tell about their struggles. Others can learn from these experiences."

Palesa: "With this course, we make the information accessible for people outside the academic space. In the MOOC, there is special attention to women of color as we want to empower them. We hope the course is like a roadmap and can help them take steps in their career."

Endowed professor | Department of Media and Communication
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PhD candidate | Department of Media and Communication
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