LONDON — By the time England’s top soccer official apologized for referring to Black players as “colored,” it was probably too late.
The official, Greg Clarke, had already told the British parliamentary committee on sports about how South Asians’ filling up the IT department of England’s soccer federation qualified as a diversity problem. But even that was only one part of a disastrous day of fumbling testimony in which he also called being gay a “life choice” and explained away a lack of female goalkeepers by saying he had been told girls “don’t like the ball kicked at them hard.”
Then Kevin Brennan, a member of the committee on sports, asked Clarke, the chairman of the English Football Association, if he would like to withdraw the use of the term “colored people,” which he had used when discussing representation in soccer. Clarke, 63, promptly did.
“If I said it, I deeply apologize for it,” Clarke said, before confusingly explaining that he had done so because he had worked for many years in the United States where “I was required to use the term ‘people of color.’”
“Sometimes I trip over my words and I apologize,” he added.
Before the hearing had ended, a chorus of shock, anger and frustration on social media over Clarke’s testimony had grown to include prominent commentators and anti-discrimination campaigners. One member of Parliament labeled his comments “abhorrent.” Within hours, Clarke’s words had cost him his job.
In a statement announcing his resignation later on Tuesday, Clarke said he had been thinking about leaving his post even before his unfortunate choice of words at Tuesday’s hearing.
“My unacceptable words in front of Parliament were a disservice to our game and to those who watch, play, referee and administer it,” he said in comments published on the Football Association’s website. “This has crystallized my resolve to move on.”
He added, “I am deeply saddened that I have offended those diverse communities in football that I and others worked so hard to include.”
Clarke is also Britain’s representative on FIFA’s governing council, where he is a vice president, and a member of the executive committee of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body. It is expected that he will leave those posts — willingly or not — too.
That Clarke has been forced out of his job because of offensive comments, particularly his language around race, was not entirely surprising. He was forced to issue an apology after an appearance before the same committee in 2017 when he described institutionalized racism as “fluff.” But his testimony on Tuesday was remarkable for the breadth of groups that he managed to offend.
Trying to answer a question about diversity in British soccer, Clarke tried to explain that the issues were nuanced, but did so using an outdated stereotype that has long been viewed as a racist trope in Britain and beyond.
“If you go to the IT Department of the F.A., there’s a lot more South Asians than there are Afro-Caribbeans,” he told the lawmakers. “They have different career interests.”
Clarke also seemed to suggest that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice and then referred to an anecdote he said he had heard from a coach who told him schoolgirls did not like playing goalkeeper because they “just don’t like having the ball kicked at them hard.”
Clarke, who addressed the committee via a video link from his home, had been called to discuss the state of soccer in the country amid ongoing concerns about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic and plans to overhaul the professional leagues.
Sanjay Bhandari, the chief executive of Kick It Out, an organization set up to tackle racism in British soccer, expressed his disbelief and issued a sharp rebuke shortly before Clarke announced he would step down.
“His use of outdated language to describe Black and Asian people as ‘colored’ is from decades ago and should remain consigned to the dustbin of history,” Bhandari said.
Clarke’s comments came less than two months after his counterpart in France, Noël Le Graët, created an outcry there by declaring racism “did not exist” in French soccer. While Le Graët remained in his post, former players and antiracism campaigners were quick to condemn him.
For the English soccer federation, Clarke’s departure will sting. The federation has tried in recent years to show it has made great strides in promoting diversity, and on Monday it released the latest update on its three-year equality, diversity and inclusion strategy that it calls “Pursuit of Progress.”
David Bernstein, a previous F.A. chairman forced from office, said he believed Clarke’s comments were “symptomatic of an organization that has just been too slow to reform.”
The Football Association said it had named Peter McCormick, a lawyer who sits on its board, as the interim chairman while it begins the process to identify Clarke’s successor. His successor will know to speak more carefully.