The ludicrous case of subconscious racist John Yems shows the FA has ‘some tolerance’ after all

A tweet from the Football Association in which they 'collectively demand change' Credit: Alamy
A tweet from the Football Association in which they 'collectively demand change' Credit: Alamy

The Football Association have delivered their verdict on the John Yems racism case and their findings are wholly unsatisfactory in the 21st century.


Over the last few months there have been many things about which we could be critical of WAGMI United, the new crypto-bro owners of League Two strugglers Crawley Town, but their early decision to relieve manager John Yems of his duties was certainly not amongst them. It has since been established that Yems was responsible for a level of racism in the way he dealt with his first-team squad that has set a new bar for recent times, with offensive language very much a part of his modus operandum.

The matter was turned over to the Football Association, but their response has been contradictory and ultimately so soft that it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that it may well embolden other racists working within the game by sending out a message that the bar for being considered racist is now so high that it’s almost impossible to reach. This, it should be absolutely clear, is categorically not what strong governance of the game in this country looks like.

The FA’s investigation found a level of racist language at Crawley over the course of his two-and-a-half years as the manager of the club that is genuinely shocking. They found that Yems:

  • Described Muslim members of the squad as “terrorists”

  • Deliberately mispronounced the second half of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name to emphasise the N-word

  • Used a racial stereotype to a black player of African origin by asking if he liked jerk chicken

  • Told Muslim players “your people blow up stuff with vests”

  • Said that an Iraqi youth international at the club “would probably blow up the stadium”

  • Repeatedly made comments about another player “carrying a bomb in his bag”

  • Called one player a “curry muncher” and asked if the player was unhappy that they did not server “curry pizza”

  • Made a remark to one player about “how dark his skin is” on his return to Crawley after representing Grenada

This is quite clearly a pretty egregious list of complaints, all of which makes the FA’s conclusion to their own findings all the more surprising and contradictory. They stated that, while the case was “extremely serious” and “involved racist bullying over a significant period of time” and that Yems’ “lack of remorse or insight” and the “repetitive nature of the misconduct” were aggravating factors, but somehow managed to conclude that “his attempts at jocularity had been thoughtless and misguided but not malevolent” even though – and there’s a wholly predictable word coming here – “Mr Yems’ ‘banter’ undoubtedly came across to the victims and others as offensive, racist and Islamophobic”. 

And the ultimate takeaway from this is a slap in the face for both anti-racism campaigners within the game and for all players of colour in this country. The Football Association disciplinary commission took all of this information, heard from a number of different witnesses, and “accepted that Mr Yems is not a conscious racist”.

It’s enough to make you wonder what he would actually need to have done to make the FA accept that when this involves a clearly definable pattern of behaviour, it might mean that the individual concerned is a racist.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy


There is a lot to unpack here. It has been commonplace in recent years to create a dividing line between ‘using racist language’ and ‘being a racist’. A stigma has become so attached to that particular accusation that the bar has now been set ridiculously high.

But in cases in which such behaviour has been going on over a substantial period of time and quite clearly doesn’t ‘only’ involve, say, a clearly isolated instance that may have come in the heat of the moment, what is the argument for suggesting that while the person using such language is not a racist, their language is?

Because in a case as clear as this, it starts to feels as though the FA’s disciplinary commission is blaming the words themselves for being racist rather than the person involved weaponising them in the first place.

Yems’ defence was weak, but it was still somehow strong enough to persuade the Football Association. He ‘categorically denied that he was in any way racist’ and that he ‘might be viewed as an ‘old school’ football manager who might be ‘robust and industrial’ in his use of language’, and the FA seemed more than happy to indulge this flawed train of thought by concluding that ‘he has no appreciation that much of the sort of language which might have been in common usage some 40 or 50 years ago has no place in modern society’.

Well, hold on a minute, there. John Yems is now 63 years old and he was 60 when he took the Crawley job. He’s also been involved as a professional football coach for more than a decade and a half. Is the suggestion here really that he went this length of time in the job without even realising that times had moved on from his childhood and that there are a number of slurs that may have been commonplace half a century ago but which aren’t acceptable anymore?

At the risk of asking an entirely rhetorical question, did the FA’s Respect campaign, which was launched during the 2008/09 season, count for nothing?

And regardless, Yems’ comments that an Iraqi youth international at the club “would probably blow up the stadium” are not the ossified language of 40 or 50 years ago, the lingustic remnants of an age long passed. To conflate Islam – or being from Iraq, or from the Middle East, or having brown skin, or whatever; detail and accuracy are seldom the point – with terrorism is a far more modern form of racism, one that has only become commonplace in this century, which calls considerable doubt on the idea Yems was doing no more than just blindly repeating the slurs that he grew up hearing.

The impression left by all of this is fairly dismal. Yet again, excuses are being made for the racists. The FA were keen to conclude that even though Yems used ‘offensive, racist and Islamophobic’ language, they ‘accepted that Mr Yems is not a conscious racist’, as though Yems was somehow not responsible for the words to have come out of his own mouth.

Perhaps one of the racism experts on the FA’s disciplinary commission should advise us on what the difference is between ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious’ racism might be, why ‘subconscious’ racism should be treated differently – almost as though it isn’t even racism at all, so often is it used as a mitigating factor – and where the line between the two might be.

Because it does feel a little as though Yems would have had to have his players dribbling the ball between burning crosses or turn up for training made up like Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer for the Football Association to have considered that higher bar to have been reached.

Going before the media and stating with confidence that ‘we’ve all learned lessons’ and that ‘we have a zero-tolerance attitude towards racial discrimination’ is the easy bit, but none of that talk is worth a single bean if, when it comes to actual cases being put before their disciplinary commission, they end up equivocating and looking for complexities that shouldn’t even need to be found.

It doesn’t matter whether John Yems was a ‘conscious’ or a ‘subconscious’ racist. It certainly doesn’t matter whether it was all ‘banter’. The conclusion from this sorry episode is that the FA have demonstrated that any talk of them having a ‘zero tolerance’ policy over racism is obvious bunkum. The Football Association have now demonstrated that they have a ‘some tolerance’ policy over racism in football, and that falls a long way short of what we should all expect in the 21st century.

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