Dave Kitson’s bid to become chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association has received a blow after the chairman of Kick It Out questioned his anti-racism credentials and three black players attacked the former Reading striker’s controversial comments about Raheem Sterling.

Kitson launched his campaign to replace Gordon Taylor as the head of the PFA this week but he faces an uphill battle to win the support of black players, who have not forgotten how he reacted to a Chelsea supporter racially abusing Sterling in December 2018 by saying that the Manchester City forward’s social media posts had “antagonised” people.

The 40-year-old was accused of excusing racism after suggesting Sterling had made himself a target during an appearance on TalkSport and his bid to replace Taylor has been met with an angry response from current and former professionals. Jobi McAnuff said Kitson’s remarks about Sterling had crossed a line and the Leyton Orient captain’s views were backed up by Marvin Sordell, the former Bolton striker, and Marcus Bean, the former Brentford and Wycombe midfielder.

Sanjay Bhandari, the head of Kick It Out, football’s anti-discrimination charity, said: “The PFA are valued partners of Kick It Out. Anyone who has aspirations to lead the PFA in the future must have in mind the best interests of all players. Given Dave Kitson’s previous remarks, I would be deeply concerned about his ability to represent black players. He needs to win their confidence and I doubt he can do that.”

At the time Kitson said Sterling’s posts were “no excuse whatsoever for racially abusing somebody, but you sow a seed amongst people who are not racist, not to like that particular person, because they don’t want to see that in their faces every day”. When contacted by the Guardian about the reaction to his PFA bid he said: “My objective is to ensure that the policies of the union reflect the needs and aspirations of all its members. Very importantly, that must include a much more effective anti-racism policy.”

McAnuff, who spent a season in the Premier League with Reading, said: “He’s had his say on certain matters, particularly on Raheem Sterling, and that certainly was something that I objected to in the most severe manner. He’s almost saying he brought on any racist abuse himself. That is inexcusable. Even if Raheem Sterling had been posting pictures of his lifestyle, that gives nobody a right to racially abuse somebody.

“The fact he could suggest that was a reason is completely unacceptable. I’ve gone on Dave Kitson’s Instagram and seen some of the pictures he’s put on, which would be similar to what he was saying about Raheem showing off. He has pictures with a gun, he has pictures with flash cars after his retirement. It was massively hypocritical.”

McAnuff insisted an apology would not suffice for him. “A line has been crossed,” he said. “I can’t see that many other players in my position would accept an apology and be happy to move on.”

Sordell, who retired last year, was asked whether he thought Kitson is unfit to lead the union. “Absolutely,” he said. “The PFA represents players. They are where players go for protection. Whether that’s happened or not in the past or currently is a different debate. If we look forward to the future and to somebody who makes excuses for racism and doesn’t protect the player, how can we look to those people for protection in the future.

“What he said is so wrong and it’s that mentality that stops us progressing. What he said isn’t necessarily racist but it allows room for racism to grow. It allows people to think saying certain things is OK. It isn’t.”

Bean, who also retired last year, said: “It’s audacity. Having someone like that in charge would leave a sour taste in my mouth. I would vehemently protest it before he was in charge. He wouldn’t receive my vote and I’d be actively trying to rectify the situation if he was in charge. People aren’t happy. Not just players but also black agents I speak to and other staff in the game. People are asking how this can be representative of us.”

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