Racism in football: a return to the bad old days?

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By Ged Grebby - Chief Executive of Show Racism the Red Card

Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC) welcome the anti-discrimination summit that was called by the new Sports Minister, Mims Davies, on 25th February 2019, but we are opposed to the idea of football fans facing harsher penalties as a solution to combating racism or any other form of discrimination.

 The last 5 years have seen a doubling of reported Hate Crime in England and Wales. The national game is not immune from society’s problems and it is therefore to be expected that football would also see a rise in Hate Crime, particularly at the grass roots level. A recent poll by Sky Sports found that 86% of football attendees and 93% of BME fans had witnessed racism in the last year. High profile incidences of racism in football in England and Scotland have undoubtedly resulted in more people discussing if ‘racism has come back to haunt football?’.

 It is always important for anti-racism activists not to be complacent and continue to promote effective strategies to challenge racism. Racism in football during the 1970’s and 1980’s was rife and a breeding ground for the far right who used to openly recruit outside football grounds and on the terraces. The 1980’s also saw the rise of anti-racism groups set up by football fans such as, “Leeds United Fans Against Racism” and “Geordies are Black and White!”, to name but two. 

 These groups played a role alongside Managers, players, Football Clubs and the Professional Footballers’ Association in combating the influence of groups like the National Front. The rise in the number of Black players in the game throughout the 1980’s also played a key role. 

 Following the tragic Hillsbrough disaster, the subsequent Taylor report and the introduction of all-seater stadia, was undoubtedly a factor in reducing visible and audible racist incidents: allowing police and stewards to isolate and identify racist offenders. The 1990’s also saw the formation of Kick Racism out of Football and Show Racism the Red Card, which were to play a role in educating fans and making messages against racism prominent. Subsequently, racism in football was on the decline during the 90’s and the start of the 21st Century. To be clear, there were still fans who held racist views, they just knew that if they expressed them in stadiums, they could face arrest and bans.

 Over the last 18 months, there have been a growing number of incidents within grounds in England and Scotland. This does not however represent a return to mass racist chanting by large sections of fans; it has tended to be a few individuals who have been caught on camera.   

 There are however worrying signs that the far-right are again targeting football as a fertile ground for their politics of hate. The Football Lads Alliance was an indication of this and although they have now splintered into the Democratic FLA, anti-racism activists will continue to monitor any activity these groups promote within or outside football grounds.

 Given the recent high-profile racist incidents within the game, are Football Authorities and the Government right to look at harsher penalties and tougher sanctions? 

 Partial ground closures and point deductions are among the sanctions being discussed.    In my opinion, both these options are over the top given the current level of racism within grounds. They could also have the effect of alienating football fans from anti-racism campaigns. We have a proud tradition in the UK of taking football fans with campaigns against racism and that is why we have managed to ‘reclaim the game’ from historic, overt, regular and widely participated in public displays of racism. The current sanctions available to football authorities and clubs, including life time bans for persistent racist offenders, are in my opinion strong enough to deal with the problem.

 Show Racism the Red Card has always believed that education is the key to challenging racism in football and society. We welcome any initiatives that will help campaigns like ours and KIO increase education for fans, players, stewards, police and indeed the rest of the football.  We welcome Nigel Reo-Coker’s suggestion that we need to use the highest profile players to boost the anti-racism message, not only within football but via the media and in our schools. Hopefully, this summit is the start of a discussion to build on the good work being done and continue to progress to kick racism out of football.