#YesSheCan is exceptionally lucky to have been able to interview Paul Elliott. Paul is a former professional footballer who now dedicates his post playing career to Diversity & Inclusion.
Paul is Chair of The Football Association’s Inclusion Advisory Board. In our interview we talk about Paul’s career, the racism that he experienced, his strong female role models and how things are changing but why there is more that needs to be done.
This interview talks candidly and specifically about racism and diversity. For those wanting to understand racism from a different perspective, please read.
#YesSheCan: You now dedicate in your career to making the world a better place, focssing on sport but understanding how sport, and particularly professional football is inextricably linked to society. My question is why?
Paul There’s not one answer. My parents are part of the Windrush Generation and it was a struggle for us as I was growing up, and I’ve seen the challenges. My mum came to the UK and she’d been a traffic warden. I remember growing up as a kid the amount of times she’d get abused because of the colour of her skin.
My Mum would mobilise, connect and empower the local community
But she carried on, she took that struggle and she went and got educated, she became a social worker and gave back to the community. She is a local source of inspiration in the community, our house was always filled with local people. When she went shopping she’d talk to people about mobilizing and empowering the community, she’d spend more time talking than shopping!! Black people were a minority in Lewisham and she’d connect us together, she helped build a community. So my mom was always that kind of pillar of the community, and that’s what really made me so proud of her.
I took that strength and positivity in my DNA and as I got older I faced the same racial abuse. My first memory of it is being on a school trip to the Isle of Wight, I was about 11 years old.
I remember a man saying to me, we don’t have black people here in the Isle of Wight. And this was my very first school trip. So you can imagine as a 10, 11 year old boy, I was just totally devastated. It had such a profound effect on me. I was literally still crying for the next day or so, and that is my first school trip.
#YesSheCan: You played football at the highest level, but ironically for a number of teams who at the time were strongly associated with The National Front. How did it feel knowing that you were good enough to be cheered on for 90minutes but once off the pitch some of the fans saw you differently?
Paul Growing up I saw the societal challenges. I knew the areas of London I should and shouldn’t go to. Eltham, where Stephen Lawrence was murdered I knew you were in the wrong place, if it was at the wrong time then there could be trouble. It was harsh. It was tough. Football was an escape to an extent but as a 16 year old about to make his professional debut for Charlton one of the lads said “we’re going to get some C*onflakes for Paul”. These were my teammates, that is the world I was in. I had to grow up fast. I was a child in age but in that environment I was a man.
But you know what, #YesSheCan: Excite before what was life had to come. And then thereafter with my, you know, my football career. And I always remember, you know, I was only 16 then making my debut for Charlton. And I remember being away in the hotel. And one of my highest said in the morning, are we going to get some Koonce likes for Paul? So you see where I’m coming from, I was 16, so they’re two big killers. It’s of sat in my head. And I’m thinking, my goodness me, I’ve grown up with it. I’ve seen a struggle with my mom and dad. Now, I started to understand the relevance of it in terms of the societal impact. That’s when I’ll start to know I’m 16 years of age kind of baby an age, the amount in body. Yeah. It’s a play for first a man show. I don’t think that was the star of my of my journey.
It was a massive challenge for me, not having the full, unwavering support of all of my teammates or supporters. You’re trying to sort correlate in your head. The same very person can sit there and eulogise about you as a footballer and say, well done Paul, you’re great here but then think you’re less of a person because of the colour of your skin.
I had to develop resilience
I was playing in Europe with one of my clubs and we were flying and I was sitting on the plane with one of the head people of the National Front. He said to me, “Paul you’re great for this club. You’re one of us – you’re not like the rest of them”. So I said to him, what constitutes the rest of them? I had to develop resilience to situations like that throughout my career, society needed to change to for these situations to end.
Society has moved on. We very rarely see bananas thrown on the pitch in the UK, we don’t have the same chants in the stands. Now there is no hiding place for people.
#YesSheCan: How have you seen things change over the years?
Paul Racism in football has moved on, its not fixed – far from it, but it’s getting better. Lord Herman Ousley – a great hero and role model – co-founded Kick It Out in 1992 with me.
At the time I was Chelsea’s first black captain, playing at my peak. Everybody interested in football knew who I was, and knew I was black. It was hugely significant because historically Chelsea FC was a breeding ground for The National Front. We’ve done so much work over the years to educate and communicate to people what is acceptable and not. Football fans are much more diverse now, I think there’s just a better type of people inside the stadiums. There’s greater diversity, more women, more children, different races. People are far more likely now to report racism and its now the majority of people in a football stadium that are against it and know its wrong
I remember speaking at a particular event, and a Millwall supporter came up to me and apologized. “I was the one that used to call you every black, every name on that expletive about you, your mother, your father. You’re black this black that. And I knew I was wrong.” And he made this open pledge in front of everybody. He had got himself educated, rehabilitated and turned negative into a positive and now he calls out racism. I thought that was really powerful. You can’t change your past, but you’ve shown remorse and now you’re a role model to empower people and let people know about your story, let people know what used to say, how you used to behave.
Getting rid of racism won’t happen unless we look at the covert racism, institutional and structural racism. There’s a long way for to go. Make no mistake.
I had a talent, I optimised my talent, I maximised my talent, and I learnt to become a leader
#YesSheCan: You grew up as an exceptionally talented, hard working black man. Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you weren’t hero worshipped, if you were “normal”?
Paul Absolutely, I know that if ever there was a black privilege, I had it. I had a talent, I optimised my talent, I maximised my talent, and I learnt to become a leader. I can say to you, hand to my heart, I’ve come across a lot of people far more talented than Paul Elliot for one reason or another, couldn’t cope, didn’t have the mental strength, didn’t have the support, didn’t have the role models. And when they got abused, they just totally capitulated.
I started lobbying when I was still playing in Scotland. I said to the newspaper Paul Elliott, like any other man of colour, has that fundamental right to work in a racism free environment. That’s my human right. The same human rights that exist in our place of work. The field of play is my workplace. So if you had somebody who was black, somebody who has a disabilities, somebody who was LGBT, and they were being abused in a way that I was as a man of colour, would you put up with that?
There was a silence in the room. That’s where I was very lucky because it was on the basis that I could say that publicly. I was Paul Elliott, the footballer, I didn’t have any problems on the street because of that but if you go out and you see the immigrants on the street they would have been treated very differently.
Individuals haven’t achieved what they should have done because of racism
A catalyst for me to keep going is knowing how unjust it is that these talented individuals haven’t achieved what they should have done because racism has impacted them so negatively.
#YesSheCan: How do you remain positive?
Paul There’s one thing, one thing whenever you talk to people of colour. One thing we’ve always wanted, I’ve wanted is myself for my parents, for my children. It’s called one thing. Equality of opportunity. You can’t change the past but you have to learn the lessons from it.
You can’t change the past but you have to learn the lessons from it.
I guess it’s a lot easier to be angry and resentful. I’ve seen some adversity. I remember when I got I had a horrific injury. I had a number of operations, it was a devastating time for me. But it just so happens my son was being born six months later. So that took my focus away from the negative to the positive and I was better for it. I learnt that if you harbour bitterness, it puts pressure on you mentally. It actually affects relationships with people that you love.
Maybe it comes from my Grandmother, she was like a little pocket dynamo named Sissy Ireta Leachman. She you had this wonderful, effervescent on outlook on life. In the most extreme circumstances she could still see a silver lining. She knew you have to fight and do the right thing, and I’ve brought that that gene from her into my life, into my journey, into my life.
#YesSheCan: You have developed an Code of Ethics for Football, can you tell us more about it?
Paul I’ve created a voluntary recruitment code. Its about redressing the balance, allowing more people to access opportunities, its lifting somebody up so they can succeed.
It’s not it’s not positive discrimination, its about giving every person capable the opportunity to excel.
It’s no more about words now. It’s about action
If 30 percent of male footballers are black why have we only got six managers who are black? Why am I one of the very few people of colour in an executive space? Its all about biases that people have. What makes them feel more comfortable and safe. I’ve been campaigning over 30 years, It’s no more about words now. It’s about action.
Creating a coherent plan that runs across football, runs across senior management, coaches, managers, people on boards, executives, will reverberate beyond. Given football’s importance in history and it’s the most watched and loved sport, you’ll see then a ripple effect, a domino effect that in other sectors in business, in the FTSE 100, 40 to 50 in the army and a judiciary system in parliament. I think you’ll see that domino effect. Then all of a sudden, people start investing in people.
#YesSheCan: Give us your thoughts on Black Lives Matter
Paul I think it’s amazing that you look at the photos of the crowds and they’re really, really diverse. And, you know, like you say, it’s about words. My dad lives in the States and he gave me like a daily commentary!
He never thought in his lifetime he would see so many white people fight and want to be alongside black people. The the diversity of youth. He said that was so powerful, the multicultural, multiracial makeup of the protesters.
For the first time in his life, as a minority black man he didn’t feel alone
He says for the first time in his life, as a minority black man he didn’t feel alone. He says he felt supported. He says he has never felt empowered in his 80 years of living, then watching that unfold.
#YesSheCan: Why is creating opportunity so important?
Paul I was given an opportunity. Others deserved it but didn’t or couldn’t take it.
If you give someone an opportunity and you work with them, you empower them, you mentor them and you train them. They will succeed.
We’ve all got greatness inside of us
We’ve all got greatness inside of us, but we need all those other elements because greatness isn’t something you’re born with. The greatest footballers weren’t born great footballers but with hard work, attitude, application and dedication you can become great.
Currently not everyone has the chance to be great. Minorities don’t have the same chance, think of how many great business people, managers, sports people, creatives the world is missing out on because our current societal structures don’t give them the chance.
We have a window of opportunity to reset the dial. Because if we don’t, use this opportunity now, then it never will happen.
If you would like to donate to Kick It Out, please click here
To read more about The FA Inclusion Advisory Board, please click here
If you would like to read more about the Ethical Code Paul is developing, please click here