by Richard Brook
Football and racism are two words I could do without ever writing in the same article ever again, though I cannot imagine that it will not happen again in the current climate. Firstly, and most importantly, if I never again felt the need to use one term in relation to the other, it would represent an epic victory for the right-thinking moral majority, as this ridiculous hatred that some people possess for their fellow human beings would have been wiped from our sport. More selfishly I could get back to writing about football. Writing about the sport that is so often known as ‘the beautiful game’ is what I do for fun. Has football ever felt less beautiful than now? In my short time doing so, writing about the game has certainly never felt less fun.
Following scenes of a fan appearing to direct gestures that one might associate with a monkey to a black player during a high profile game last night, it seems to me that those of us that cover the sport have a responsibility to re-consider what we consider news-worthy. This responsibility extends beyond racism to other forms of behaviour that are undesirable that are associated with the game, such as some of the unacceptable chants that have made the football news recently. This might sound like I am trying to trivialise some of the most serious issues blighting the sport at the moment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A glance through the articles that I have written in the past will soon establish that I am no apologist for racism and that I certainly do not have a track record for sweeping such matters under the carpet. Neither am I denying that some issues are too big to ignore. It would have been impossible for the English national media to disregard the disgraceful abuse that occurred at the England Under-21 game in Serbia, not least because of the on-pitch brawl that was sparked as a result. I strongly believe however that the media has a responsibility to exercise a strong degree of discretion as to what is reported, to avoid exacerbating the behaviour issues, including racism, that currently exist within modern football.
There is a fine line between reporting on a story and, however inadvertent it might be, manufacturing the news. One can almost envisage a television crew, for some 24/7 news channel, gathered around a box, containing Schrodinger’s cat. As per the famous thought experiment, the cat shares the box with a radioactive source, a monitor and a vile of poison. Should the monitor detect radioactivity the vile will be shattered and the poison released. According to the theory, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead, until the cat’s state is properly observed. As my metaphorical news crew open the box, to discover the truth, they actually directly affect the story.
My fear is that essentially by reporting on some of the acts of unwelcome behaviour currently associated with football, we will serve only to make it worse. Some perpetrators of such behaviour will undoubtedly crave the attention that it brings. Some will see national press coverage of their actions and the outrage it provokes as a badge of honour.
Sometimes the behaviour occurs before our very eyes, such as the assault on Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland against Leeds United, as the game was selected for television coverage. The world had already seen the incident, long before anyone ever wrote about it. While I would actually advocate this incident being brought to light as it was behaviour so rarely witnessed as to have been widely denounced, it could not have been ignored had we wanted to.
The kind of incident I would question the value of reporting would be story I saw in the national press recently. The story reported that a football league club had taken the step of appealing to their own fans to stop abusing their players on social networking site twitter. A fan had levelled racist abuse at a particular player, who happened to be the club’s Kick It Out ambassador, after the player had conceded an injury time penalty during a recent match.
I do not seek to justify, or in any way excuse or lessen the impact of what was done. Racial abuse is racial abuse regardless of the platform on which it appears or any other circumstance. The player in question should not have had to read such words written against him. Like all instances of racial abuse these actions were nothing short of abhorrent.
I am sure it is noticeable that in the above account I have not named the club, the player or the fan, as I am standing by my proposed principles of not drawing attention to such behaviour. In fact my description of events is sufficiently detailed to make it plain to those who are aware of the story, which incident I am referring to and this is not ideal.
I am concerned that fans who exhibit undesirable behaviour are likely to start treating getting mentioned in the media as a competition. It could be that an attitude will arise whereby the chants get ever more tasteless and the acts of violence, racism and other criminal behaviour become ever more extreme. Fans may seek to outdo each other and with groups of rival fans as they compete in terms of the level of coverage they able to obtain through undesirable behaviour.
In my opinion, in the vast majority of instances, if the media cover the minutiae of every instance of undesirable, football-related, behaviour they serve only to glorify and glamorise such behaviour, in the eyes of the kind of person who would behave in such a way to begin with. We have all been painfully aware of declining standards of behaviour in terms of racism, and terrace chants in football for some time now. Blow by blow accounts of each and every occasion have ceased to be useful.
What football requires now is a concerted media campaign for the bodies with real power, not soft targets like the worthwhile charity Kick It Out, to severely clamp down on this behaviour and impose serious penalties on clubs whose supporters indulge in such behaviour. In all such instances, they will be punishing very many more innocent people than they will guilty people but it is necessary for the good of football. The organisations that must start acting are the PFA who, as the players’ union, in conjunction with the media must call upon those with regulatory and punitive powers to act. The Football League, The FA, Uefa and FIFA must be made to take these behaviours seriously and take appropriate actions to try to put an end to the matter.
As a child of the 1980’s myself, my parents would not take me to a football match until I was nine years old due to the crowd behaviour at that time. By contrast I first agreed to my little girl’s pleadings to come with me when she was 18 months old. Football cannot afford for families once again to stop going to games because of behaviour they do not want their children exposed to, because once the families are gone those behaviours take hold even tighter. Football has come a long way since the dark days of my childhood and thankfully remains far away from those times. We still need to guard against any sign that it could slip back.
It is for those of us who choose to make our opinions on football heard, to protect the sport. We must acknowledge these issues, without bringing undeserved and unnecessary publicity to those who are dragging the game down, and ask the questions that can bring the required changes that can prevent racism and other undesirable behaviour in football going unpunished.