Football: Time for tougher sanctions on fans who discriminate and the clubs that tolerate them?

Channel 4’s Dispatches programme broadcast on Monday evening, which focused on racist, antisemitic, Islamaphobic, and homophobic conduct by fans of a number of English football clubs has inevitably resulted in many friends and colleagues expressing horror about this misbehaviour and the damage it does to the reputation of our national game. Moreover people have turned to me, as a member of the Football Association’s new Inclusion Advisory Board (IAB), to demand action.

I have little doubt that this subject will be a major topic of debate at the IAB’s next regular meeting in April. Indeed I know that the Board’s excellent chair, Heather Rabbatts CBE, and executives at the FA are already in discussion about how to respond to this new evidence.

In the meantime, I have been considering my own position on the topic and examining the options. One possibility is for the FA, Premier League, and Football League to follow the example of UEFA, the European football governing body, which recently strengthened its disciplinary regulations in relation to sanctions against clubs whose fans exhibited discriminatory conduct during the course of a UEFA regulated match (i.e. European Championships, the Champions League, Europa League etc.).

Article 14 of UEFA’s Disciplinary Regulations states that:

1. Any [national FA, club, official, or player] who insults the human dignity of a person or group of persons by whatever means, including on the grounds of skin colour, race, religion or ethnic origin, incurs a suspension lasting at least ten matches or a specified period of time, or any other appropriate sanction.

It goes on to say:

2. If one or more of a [national FA] or club’s supporters engage in the behaviour described in paragraph 1, the [national FA] or club responsible is punished with a minimum of a partial stadium closure.

In other words, the part of the stadium from which the misconduct emanated can be closed and cleared, which clearly will effect not only those who have misbehaved but also those sitting or standing around them. I assume that this sanction will have the benefit of exacting peer pressure on offenders from their better behaved colleagues who don’t wish to be removed from the stands because of misconduct by others nearby.

The UEFA regulations continue by stating that repeat offences involving the same club can be punished by matches being played behind closed doors, fines, stadium closures, forfeiting of a match, the deduction of points or disqualification from the competition, all of which are sanctions which would severely punish a club and its fans.

The threat of this kind of sanction would, I suspect, focus the minds of club owners, directors, and officials to the need to tackle racist, homophobic, or other discriminatory conduct by their fans. Knowing that misconduct could see a club lose all of its gate income were a match to be played behind closed doors, or worse still see them removed from a competition entirely should, I hope, mean that there will be both a footballing and commercial imperative to dealing with the problem.

But what can clubs do improve fan conduct and to demonstrate that improper behaviour will not be tolerated? Some clubs – working with the FA, the Leagues, and organisations like Kick it Out, Football v Homopobia, and Just a Ball Game? – have already instituted effective education programmes including use of videos, social media, match programme articles, and events, which aim to address both the thinking and behaviour of supporters. This of course should continue and be encouraged and I know that the FA IAB will be promoting this kind of work.

But education only goes so far. Clubs need to demonstrate that they are taking a tough line on discriminatory misconduct by their fans. Stewards need to be better trained so they can – with the assistance of the police where necessary – address bad behaviour as it occurs, including removing fans from the ground where they are seen and/or heard to engage in racist or homophobic chanting. Repeat offenders – or ringleaders – should be given lifetime bans from following the club they claim to love. Police need to investigate, arrest, and charge those who commit criminal offences so the courts can use tools such as football banning orders to protect the public and the game.

Football is an amazing sport not just on the field but also because of its ability to bring communities together. It can only do that if everyone feels welcome at matches. Disciminatory behaviour needs to be stamped out and that means that the football authorities, the clubs, and fans themselves need to take action now to carry on changing the culture of the game, so that when we talk about ‘football for all’ we really mean it.

Edward Lord OBE is a member of the Football Association’s Inclusion Advisory Board and chair of the Inclusion Advisory Group for the London FA. This post is written in a personal capacity and does not reflect the views of the FA or the London FA. 

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