Comment: Football must oust Wigan duo to exorcise spectre of bigotry like NBA have done

With sponsors clambering over one another to catch the last helicopter out of the DW Stadium, the present scene at Wigan Athletic feels a lot like the Fall of Saigon.

The embers of controversy that began with the hiring of Malky Mackay, whose racially-insensitive texts landed him in hot water earlier in the season, were stoked into a blaze by apparent racial slurs made by owner Dave Whelan.

Representatives of the British Jewish and Chinese communities have roundly condemned Whelan’s conduct, and the FA have also weighed in saying they are “very concerned” by the reported epithets. An investigation has been opened.

It was revealed in August that Mackay, among other things, said in reference to Jewish football agent Phil Smith: “Nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers.”

When quizzed about this by the Guardian, Whelan said: “I think Jewish people do chase money more than everybody else. I don’t think that’s offensive at all.”

Unsurprisingly the club has lost two sponsors in two days – first one of Wigan’s shirt sponsors, kitchen appliance firm Premier Range, who described their relationship as ‘untenable’. They were soon followed by Ipro, an energy drink firm, who announced they were ‘severing ties’ with the club.

Clearly Whelan is a man very out of touch with modern British society. Previously his endless eulogising of Margaret Thatcher and his obsession with that broken leg were merely annoying. Now it must be called into question whether he’s fit to run a football club.




The 77-year-old also defended his manager’s use of the word ‘chink’ to refer to his former employer Vincent Tan, a Malaysian.

“If any Englishman said he has never called a Chinaman a chink he is lying,” Whelan declared, as if ‘Chinaman’ itself wasn’t offensive.

He effectively dug his own grave by telling the BBC he has “thousands of Jewish friends”. 

The ‘some of my best friends are…’ argument is almost as much of a giveaway as saying ‘I’m not a racist, but…’

If football is serious about exorcising the spectre of bigotry men like Whelan and Mackay surely can’t continue to have a presence in the game. In any other profession they would be excommunicated.

But this throws into perspective how pervasive such attitudes actually are in a sport in which managers, coaches and executives largely still come from an old-school boys’ club.

Hull City manager Steve Bruce, who was twice employed by Wigan, provided the obligatory public backing, saying Whelan “has no racism in him.”

The bigger picture isn’t really about Wigan. It isn’t even really about Whelan or Mackay. Every now and then something like this surfaces that exposes football’s secret shame, as the Keys-and-Gray saga did.   

What matters now is how football reacts.

A great many parallels can be drawn between this episode and the storm surrounding the Los Angeles Clippers’ 80-year-old former owner Donald Sterling earlier this year.

Sterling was caught in the middle of a race row when he was found to have asked his then-girlfriend not to bring black people to Clippers matches. 

Like Whelan, he escalated the controversy in his attempted defence, revealing further deep-seated prejudices.

In the face of a costly and protracted legal battle, the NBA removed Sterling from the sport, forcing the sale of the Clippers. 

While ownership rules in English sports make such a move virtually impossible, the FA need to seriously consider taking similarly tough measures. 

Main image courtesy of Press Association via YouTube, with thanks.

Related Articles