Paul Davis attained his coaching badge aged 17 because he wanted to stay in the game.
His dream was to captain a first team but the closest he came in the football pyramid was managing Arsenal’s youth side.
It’s a respectable achievement but the former player realised minorities don’t always have it easy.
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He was one of the first professional black footballers to play in England in the late 1970s. He spent the majority of his career with Arsenal, winning the cup double in 1993.
But breaking invisible glass ceilings is nothing new for the 52-year-old.
“When I started as a footballer, there was the perception we couldn’t play in some positions because we were black,” Davis told Al Jazeera.
Today, Davis continues to tear down the walls.
Research shows they want to stay in the game but don't feel included and involved
After a making the transition, he now works with the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and serves as a role model to aspiring minority players. He has even completed coaching licences at the highest level in England and with UEFA.
While diversity on the field has improved drastically, the presence of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) coaches in the dugouts or top management positions is still rare.
Although it’s not always easy to directly observe racism in these situations, the numbers reveal a serious problem.
After the sacking of Norwich City’s Chris Hughton in April, not a single black manager remained in England’s top four divisions of football until Chris Powell’s appointment at Huddersfield earlier this month.
There were only five black managers in the Premier League, Football League and Conference Premier at the start of last season.
So why are there so few BME coaches working in top positions, when it’s so easy to list entire generations of black or minority players.
No lack of interest
The claim that they’re simply not interested in continuing with the sport in a different role or capacity after retirement is a myth, according to Davis.
“Research shows they want to stay in the game but don’t feel included and involved,” he said. “We have black players come to us all the time to share their concerns. You need role models to inspire and for young black players to see someone in power.”
It’s tempting to view the cause of the lack of BME coaches as racism alone. While it’s a factor, it’s arguably more complex.
Former Reading striker Jason Roberts, who graduated from ‘On Board’, a football governance programme that helps diversify football clubs’ boardrooms explained to Al Jazeera that the argument that BME coaches lack the credentials is false.
|It’s not the lack of qualification but the lack of interviews that is holding black managers back, according to Jason Roberts [Getty Images]
“Qualification isn’t the issue, it’s the opportunity to get interviewed,” Roberts said. “Over 20% of coaching qualifications are of BME background.”
For most minority coaches, it’s impossible to prove or demonstrate their coaching abilities because they can’t even reach the first hurdle – the interview.
Davis reminded Al Jazeera that “roughly 35 black coaches are qualified at the highest level in the country but lack experience”.
He added that it turned into a vicious cycle, where some grow restless and negative about the entire process, spending all that time and hard work on attaining the necessary qualifications when the opportunities didn’t exist.
To change the landscape, a systemic transformation is needed. Change doesn’t just apply to coaching positions but to all of management – from administrative to boardroom.
The governance structures have to diversify and reflect the game’s reality, according to Roberts.
“When you have a boardroom that has people from the same social demographics, same culture, same background, it’s going to gravitate to people that are from that group,” he said. “So the diversity of the boardroom is key.”
But it’s also psychological. Proving racism on micro levels is challenging and most BME coaches can’t provide evidence of these sort of social inequities, but they know it’s there.
No club or employer will directly tell a BME coach they’re not hired because of their colour.
But Davis feels that those in top positions are not always necessarily racist. Instead, just unaware of the unintended consequences of their decisions.
“A chairman of a big club will likely choose someone similar to his personality, that’s a sub-conscious behaviour,” he said
Whatever its causes, it’s a complex issue that persists with BME coaches still on the edge rather than the centre.
To deal with the discrepancy, some advocate the introduction of the English equivalent of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires a club to interview at least one minority candidate for every coach or general manager opening.
Roberts believes the rule will change the recruitment structure and formulate the entire process.
“I think it will create a conversation for people who are on the outside of the employment process. Currently, it’s about high-skilled people who played at the top of the game,” he said.
“They won everything you could win on the pitch and have retired with their badges. They are not getting even a single interview.”
While the PFA supports the equivalent of a Rooney Rule, the rest of the country’s football bodies and leagues need to take a bolder stance.
The tapping of the glass will not stop until there’s more diversity at the top and until the glass ceiling is completely shattered.