Via The Guardian, a look at how the face of soccer refereeing is changing – with big thanks to two brave men – Joel Mannix and Aji Ajibola:

Many people know that on Thursday 1 December 1955 a woman called Rosa Parks changed the course of the American civil rights movement and wrote her place in history when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus so that white passengers could sit down.

Her act of courage sparked a bus boycott by the local Black community and turned Martin Luther King into a household name. Very few people, however, know the name of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who did the same thing nine months earlier and perhaps, given her tender age, demonstrated even greater courage. The reason is that Colvin became pregnant very soon after the incident and was therefore deemed an unsuitable role model to be the catalyst for such an important movement. So, while Parks is quite rightly remembered for her courage, Colvin’s brave act goes largely unremembered.

This week Rebecca Welch and Sam Allison are making their own history as Premier League referees. On Saturday, at Fulham, Rebecca became the first woman to take charge of a top-flight game. On Boxing Day, at Sheffield United, Sam will be the first Black referee to officiate a Premier League match since Uriah Rennie, who retired in 2008. Rebecca and Sam are incredibly talented individuals and have reached the peak of their profession because they are the best at what they do. They shouldn’t be assessed as the standard bearers for all female or Black referees, but we should reflect on how they have reached a level so many of their talented contemporaries never achieved.

Five years ago, two Black officials, Joel Mannix and Aji Ajibola, were paired together for a game at Whitehawk. After the match, they got into a conversation about how unusual it was to see two Black referees at National League level and their discussion spawned the Black, Asian and mixed heritage referees’ support group. Unlike some people in football, Joel and Aji didn’t just spend time talking about the problem and pumping out ideas, they built a movement and developed a detailed plan of how the challenges should be addressed.

At the time there were no Black or Asian referees in the top four divisions of the men’s game, and, perhaps more importantly, little appetite in the football establishment to recognise the problem, much less do something about it. The problems were numerous and complex: an ancient governance structure riddled with nepotism; a progression pathway vulnerable to racism and confirmation bias; and a talent development process responsible for developing elite officials that predominantly excluded Black, Asian and mixed heritage referees.

Joel enlisted the support of Darren Lewis, from the Mirror and CNN, to start opening a dialogue and raise awareness. Over the next two years, Joel and Aji engaged with senior leaders across the Football Association and PGMOL to highlight the problems and suggest solutions.

The courage and tenacity involved cannot be overestimated as doors remained tightly shut and the power brokers within the refereeing fraternity closed ranks to maintain the exclusion of Black and Asian officials. Joel and Aji pressed ahead despite an obvious threat to their refereeing careers, and over the next 12 months football started to recognise it had a major problem.

Problem recognition is the first stage to effect change but the next step is crucial: commitment to change from leaders. Would the leadership within football make the difficult decisions and commit to the actions required to drive change? Many doubted whether it had the appetite and commitment, but in the FA’s Peter Elsworth, Andy Ambler and Mark Bullingham and the PGMOL’s Howard Webb, Danielle Every and Mike Riley, hard decisions and tangible actions started to take shape.

Systemic changes in the governance structure and referees’ assessment processes, education for the wider workforce, recruitment of experts in equality, diversity and inclusion, and more positive engagement with Joel and Aji led to more strategic investment in talent identification and development pathways for people from underrepresented groups.

When we see a lack of representation it is often assumed a lack of talent is the problem. That is very rarely the case and was never the case with refereeing. The talent was always within the game but the progression opportunities were not. Refereeing leaders took a bold decision to drive systemic change by implementing many of the recommendations in the plan developed by Joel and Aji.

Five years down the line it is still early days, but progress is evident with a far healthier talent pipeline of Black, Asian and mixed heritage referees, and many more coming through the grassroots system.

The importance of role modelling is rightly identified as an enabler of change. “If you cannot see it, you cannot be it” is a commonly used quote. But visibility alone will never drive change in equality because often the change required is systemic and that requires brave leaders, hard choices and concrete actions, not platitudes.

No Black, Asian or mixed heritage official has taken charge of a major English cup final and three years ago I never believed I would live to see it. I now believe it will happen within my lifetime and that in no small part will be down to Joel and Aji, who made a snowball that started an avalanche within refereeing and across the broader football community.

Years from now when we have a game where the elite refereeing community represents the broader community of our country, I hope history is written accurately. If it is then the names of Joel Mannix and Aji Ajibola will be remembered and revered across the football landscape.


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