In our divided Brexit Britain, football racism is on the rise yet again

Daniel Kilvington
Action Images via Reuters

In July, cricketing superstar Jofra Archer was on cloud nine as he celebrated his World Cup win. Fast forward to November and he’s back in the headlines, but this time for being racially abused by a fan in New Zealand. Sadly, we appear to be hearing about these types of incidents more and more across a number of sports.

Let’s look closer at football. In September, Chelsea forward Tammy Abraham faced vile online racist abuse after missing a penalty in the Super Cup, October saw Bulgarian fans racially abuse England’s black footballers while playing in Sofia, and monkey chants were aimed at Mario Balotelli, of Brescia, in Verona earlier last month.

But is overt racism in football actually rising or are we just hearing about incidents more? The Home Office reported a 47 per cent increase in football related hate crimes in England and Wales during the 2018-19 campaign. Of the 193 reports relating to hate speech, 79 per cent were racist, which is a 51 per cent increase on the previous season. And, in 2015, Kick It Out revealed that there were over 134,000 discriminatory comments posted on social media platforms within the context of the Premier League during the 2014-15 season.

Why is this happening?

First of all, football is not racist, society is racist, and society comes to football. Due to Brexit, as well as the changing social and political landscape in the United States and Europe, racism and xenophobia now masquerade as nationalism. For some, protecting one’s national identity means to protect its culture from perceived outsiders. Brexit, it could be argued, has capitalised on Britons’ fear of immigration and the erosion of the British identity. This nationalistic discourse, sadly, justifies racist and xenophobic behaviour and leads to the denial of racism.

In the current climate then, overt forms of prejudice are rising both online and offline and the tribal nature of sport fuels this fire. As a devoted follower of football, I understand that it can bring people together, break down barriers, and enrich lives. I’ve seen this. However, it also stirs up hate, divides people, and can encourage violence. Sadly, I’ve seen this too.

For staunch fans in particular, sporting environments and events become emotionally charged atmospheres. Fans are expected to rally behind their team and be the so-called twelfth man. Fans are therefore part of a crowd, a collective, and the teams’ shirt bonds you as ‘one of us’ in the fight against ‘them’. Part of the role as a committed fan is to put the other team off their game. One way of doing this is to throw out insults. In the heat of the moment, events such as red cards, penalty misses, or bad tackles, lead to abuse.

But when the offender is a person of colour, some fans direct their anger at the player’s race. When Spurs’ Son Heung-Min fouled Everton’s Andre Gomes in early November, leading to Gomes suffering a career threatening injury, Son faced racist abuse from fans both inside the stadium and online.

Abuse of this kind is nothing new, of course. Football stadiums in the 1970s were hostile spaces as overt racism was commonplace. The stories shared by trailblazers such as Cyrille Regis, Paul Cannoville, and Mark Walters are difficult to hear. Football, and society, evolved and open prejudice in public spaces decreased as social norms advanced.

Yet it feels like we’ve reached the summit and now we’re on a downward curve. Not only are we witnessing more and more examples of overt racism in public settings, such as football or cricket stadiums, but we are seeing an increase of online hate speech. The latter illustrates how racist, sexist and homophobic views are still held by some, not all, members of society.

So what can football do to challenge overt racism?

There are multiple ways that overt racism can be tackled but I’ll concentrate on two. First, sanctions are essential. Fans who make overtly racist remarks on match days must face punishment at an individual level. However, because these fans represent the club, the club should also face punishments such as a fine or a deduction of points. If there are severe consequences, fans will be less likely to espouse hatred because it counteracts their duty as a fan – helping the team win.

Second, without education, racism will never be defeated. Preventing public displays of racism does not prevent individuals and groups holding these views. Football’s institutional bodies, professional clubs, and anti-discriminatory organisations can all play a role in helping educate people about race, ethnicity, faith, and anti-racism.

For example, educational workshops in schools and colleges would be beneficial while rehabilitation sessions for those guilty of racist abuse within football can help challenge mindsets and encourage a change in behaviour.

Only three months into this year’s football season and there’s been an extraordinary amount of racist incidents. As we enter into the festive fixtures, I’m left wondering what the next incident will be. And how long will it be until football’s governing bodies become proactive rather than reactive, and take the necessary steps required to challenge the disease which is burrowing into the heart of the beautiful game.

Dr Daniel Kilvington is course director and senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities, Leeds Beckett University​

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