"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Those are the words of Nelson Mandela and they are printed on the back of Gavin Sutherland’s T-shirt, which he is wearing during an event aimed at ending racism in football.
Gavin was running the day-long event at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium on behalf of charity Show Racism the Red Card.
More than 100 schoolchildren from five schools across the city took part in the event on Thursday and also got the chance to quiz Owls’ stars Liam Palmer and Tom Lees about the issue and their experiences of it on the ptich.
The youngsters – from Greenhill Primary School, Lound Academy, Wharnclifffe Side Primary School, Greengate Lane Academy and Hatfield Primary Academy – welcomed the chance to find out about what racism and hate crime mean and how they can affect the lives and careers of footballers, young people and the public.
Show Racism the Red Card holds the educational events at football clubs across the country as part of a project, which will also includes work in schools and teacher training.
Children posed a number of questions to the top table, which as well as the Wednesday defenders featured former Doncaster Rover Richard Offiong.
During the Q&A, all three players said they had experienced racism on the pitch at some point in their footballing careers and they, and Gavin and the rest of the committed team at SRTC, firmly believe education is the only way to rid it from the game and society.
Wednesday club captain Lees said: “Events like this are important because we are seeing instances of racism in football and it puts it at the forefront of the children’s minds.
“These are the next generation of fans so it’s important to make them aware and educate them about the issue.”
Lees, 27, who joined the Owls on a free transfer in August 2014, praised the children for the questions they posed and encouraged them to think about what they hear in the stands or read on the internet.
He added: “Hopefully by us being here it makes a bit more personal because they realise that footballers are real people that they are saying things to – it’s not just characters.
“They are proper people so for them to see us here today it hopefully hits that home a bit more. The kids asked some really good questions and it’s nice to see they are committed.”
Palmer, who progressed through the academy at Hillsborough before breaking into the first team in August 2010, said he hoped the children would learn more about online abuse, given the rise in social media.
He said: “I think the education side of it is so important because there are schools in parts of Sheffield which have more kids from different backgrounds than others and those that don’t have that many might not necessarily fully understand racism.
“The kids fed off each other and once one of them asked a question they all wanted to and they asked some really good questions.”
Palmer, 27, added he was concerned about the rise in online abuse, which children are often subject to.
He said: “I think the social media side of it is almost another dimension to the issue because typing something online and saying something to someone’s face is completely different.”
Several pupils said they found the session useful and enjoyed getting the chance to meet some of their heroes from the pitch.
Wednesdayite Archie Palmer, a pupil at Greengate Lane Academy 10, said: “I understand racism better now and people shouldn’t be racist to anybody. I’ve also learnt that if I hear anything not to react and let your feet do the talking.
“I now know that if I see or hear anything to report it to my coaches so they can report it to the right people.”
Fellow Owls’ fan nine-year-old Isobella Shelton, also of Greengate Lane Academy, also said she found the session useful.
She said: “I asked the players what was the best way to respond to racism on the football pitch. They said that you should always tell the referee because the referee can then tell someone who can investigate it.”
Ged Grebby, chief executive of Show Racism the Red Card, thanked Wednesday for hosting the event.
He said: “It’s great that Sheffield Wednesday supported SRTRC by hosting the educational event with us.
“Clubs like Wednesday are helping us work with young people in a unique setting, listen to their views and educate about prejudice.
“We want to make sure if a young person experiences or witnesses racism they know what they can do about it.”
For more information visit Show Racism The Red Card website at www.theredcard.org and to report an incident of abuse and/or discrimination email firstname.lastname@example.org.