Cultural immaturity continues to plague football, says Kick It Out boss

Tony Burnett criticised the lack of condemnation from within the game of Joey Barton’s comments about female pundits.

Kick It Out chief executive Tony Burnett believes there is a lack of maturity within the culture of football
Kick It Out chief executive Tony Burnett believes there is a lack of maturity within the culture of football (Steven Paston/PA)

The football authorities’ failure to challenge Joey Barton’s remarks about female pundits highlights the sport’s cultural immaturity, Kick It Out chief executive Tony Burnett has said.

Former Manchester City, Newcastle and QPR midfielder Barton described ITV pundits Eni Aluko and Lucy Ward as “the Fred and Rose West of football commentary” in January and has questioned the role of female commentators within the men’s game.

ITV condemned Barton’s comments as “vindictive” and Aluko spoke out later the same month about the impact they had on her, and the further online abuse they triggered.

Kick It Out boss Burnett, who retires from his post at the end of the month, felt the comments should have faced stronger censure from within football.

Eni Aluko was targeted for online abuse after comments made by Joey Barton
Eni Aluko was targeted for online abuse after comments made by Joey Barton (Adam Davy/PA)

“In any organisation or environment, the culture is defined by the worst behaviour that you’re prepared to accept,” Burnett told the PA news agency.

“If I look at just the last six months in football, we’ve had some prominent people – I won’t name them – talking about whether women have the right to express opinions on the men’s game.

“Those people are getting quite a lot of airtime actually, but very little challenge from some of the prominent organisations that control our game that should have been prepared to challenge those views.

“Can you imagine someone saying that Martina Navratilova hasn’t got any right to comment on men’s tennis because it’s a different game? I mean, it’s just ludicrous, isn’t it? Or Denise Lewis not being able to commentate on men’s athletics?

“(Football’s handling of the Barton case) is a good example in my opinion of where we’re at culturally.

“When I compare with those other sports, there’s a level of maturity about the expertise that’s required and an acknowledgement that expertise isn’t gender or sex-specific that still hasn’t got through to football.

“I don’t know why that is, but we have to develop a level of maturity where discussions like that shouldn’t even be given airtime. It shouldn’t be a conversation in 2024.”

Burnett believes the culture shift football needs cannot come from within, and will inevitably have to be forced upon it by a regulator.

Legislation to create an independent football regulator was set aside after a General Election was called for July 4, but Kick It Out will continue to lobby the new government on this topic.

“If there’s going to be a regulator that’s a perfect opportunity to give that regulator the powers to force football to do the hard stuff, become more inclusive and develop talent and give people fair opportunities to progress in the game,” he said in an interview prior to the election being called.

“We don’t trust that (the football authorities) will make progress unless there’s an external regulator that says, ‘You must make progress in these areas’. There should be a clear code of governance at the very minimum which forces football to share representation data.

“If football could have delivered on some of these issues it would have done decades ago, but there isn’t sufficient appetite to do that. So we have to force football into a situation where they are prepared to do it.”

Burnett joined Kick It Out in early 2021, with the organisation making significant progress under his leadership.

The number of reports it receives per incident of discrimination has increased in each of the last four seasons, indicating an increased willingness among spectators to report.

The first prison sentence for online abuse was handed down in September 2021, while Jamie Arnold was jailed for six months in December of last year for racially abusing Rio Ferdinand, which Kick It Out believes is the toughest sentence yet handed down for discriminatory abuse at a match.

Under Burnett, Kick It Out has successfully brought together the football authorities to campaign for the introduction of the Online Safety Bill.

Burnett believes the political ‘culture wars’ will continue to be an issue for whoever succeeds him at Kick It Out, adding: “Behaviour from senior people in our society drives a mentality where it’s okay to say certain things that it wasn’t okay to say 20 years ago – that needs to stop, because we see the effects on grassroots football and the effects are really serious for people that participate in matches.”

However, he sees plenty to be optimistic about for the future.

Tony Burnett will retire from his role at Kick It Out at the end of June
Tony Burnett will retire from his role at Kick It Out at the end of June (Steven Paston/PA)

“Global population is going to increase by at least 1.5 billion people by 2050, so our countries are going to become more diverse,” Burnett said.

“Getting this right isn’t about diversity, it’s about how we make sure different people feel a sense of belonging whatever country they’re living, working, surviving in.

“I think we’ll get through this. We’re just in a period of time now which is ignoring the future. The challenge is, how do we develop belonging so we can all live together and prosper in a way that we all want to see?

“Ninety-nine per cent of people that we work with a good people, let’s not forget that. It’s the one per cent that create the challenges and get probably most of the time unfortunately.”