FOREWORD TO ARTICLE (Tom Lees - 26th January 2016)
Last week I produced the below article titled 'Discrimination in Football, the Grey Area', but due to the nature of the content I restrained from posting on the FanFormation website. This was due to the mixed response it received from people close to me when I asked their opinions on the matter.
I, like anyone else connected to this website, abhor racism and discrimination in any way and did not wish my writing to be taken as either a justification or incitement. Therefore I decided to reach out to 'Kick It Out' and ask their thoughts on the piece and whether they could see any potential issue it may cause. They have since kindly responded, advising that this is a legitimate topic to bring up as an opinionated piece of writing and they see no reason for it to be held back.
I'd like to thank Kick it Out for their assistance, and here at FanFormation we would like to suggest that anyone should seriously consider, whether they are involved in football or not, supporting a group or groups which others may find offensive. Thank you for your time.
DISCRIMINATION IN FOOTBALL, THE GREY AREA
by Tom Lees - 21st January 2016
Over the past few days’ football has once again been rocked by the ugly image of racism and homophobia. On Tuesday evening it was alleged by Inter Milan coach Roberto Mancini that he was on the receiving end of homophobic slurs by Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri during a Coppa Italia quarter final match. Mancini in an interview after the match stated that Sarri was “a racist and homophobe who should be drummed out of football” [source Football Italia]. All of this is yet to be proven and investigations from the Italian FA are ongoing, but it once again highlights the areas of society and football that are still prevalent.
Racism, homophobia and general discriminatory views are not a problem of football, they are a problem of society. It’s not even a cultural thing, I often hear people in England claim racist views are an issue for other nations to focus on, ignoring the problem on their own doorstep and failing even to see the slight racial undertone in their deflective stance. Everybody knows somebody that has a distasteful view of people and society, whether it be religious, racial, national, mental or physical the ‘politically incorrect’ views are out there in every city, town and village. We’ve all been to a sporting event or large gathering and heard a ‘joke’ or remark that could be described as offensive or discriminatory. It is rife, maybe not as blatant or aggressive as in the past, but it is definitely still there. It is part of society, unfortunate, but it is there. Don’t believe me, just look at any social media site for a snapshot of the general view of the World, it’s not pretty viewing and ignoring the issue gets us nowhere.
Governing bodies, both inside and outside of football, are rightfully trying to tackle the issue via education and understanding. Kick It Out and F.A.R.E both do some great work for the cause but they are only going to change things slowly and on a small scale and when public violations of the discriminatory standards are made their efforts are seriously undermined. But what hasn’t been mentioned is the huge grey area in the game, something that is a ticking time bomb and that could change everything in the future.
Football players are a representation of society, they are human beings and have their own thoughts, opinions and beliefs. So if in society we have racists, homophobes or anyone with unfavourable political/social views, then of course we will also have a percentage of footballers who also fall into these categories. So as much as we want discrimination and prejudice eliminated from the game, can a professional footballer be punished for having a viewpoint that the masses find unsavoury? Of course we’ve had high profile cases of racism/discrimination from players and fans in recent years, John Terry, Luis Suárez and Nicolas Anelka have all made the news and faced punishment. These punishments were classified under ‘Article 14 of UEFA’s Disciplinary Regulations’.
“Any person under the scope of Article 3 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”
This is a fairly standard and just regulation, but what this fails to cover is an individual’s own beliefs. What if a player came out and said, for example, “I am a national socialist supporter and believe in an Aryan master race”. Could that player then be sanctioned for having racist views? He is not directing an attack on the human dignity of a person or group, he is merely stating his own belief. So can that be punished by a governing body? Yes, that statement the player made will cause uproar amongst millions of people and offence will be taken, but if that player has not directed his views towards a person or group can he not just claim it’s his own viewpoint and no offence to others was intended? This is the grey area that will present itself. No club will want that player on their books, the campaign groups will demand his removal from the sport, and the majority of fans and players will be disgusted. But what action could really be taken?
If you worked in any other organisation and had a social or political viewpoint, you could not be sacked for your beliefs unless those were put upon your colleagues or customers in a way that affected them. Any change to your employment based on a personal belief could be legally challenged. Also your colleagues as much as they would hate to do so, would have to respect your opinion and carry on professionally as long as you do. So football would have to follow suit. Whether your belief is political, racial or social as long as you act in a professional manner and don’t use it to provoke others then no law has been broken.
An example of this, although nowhere near the level of my example earlier, was that recently of James McClean. The now West Bromwich Albion winger refuses to wear a poppy on his kit every year to commemorate Remembrance Sunday, because of his own beliefs based around the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry. This viewpoint drew outrage from fans and media and McClean’s name will always be remembered because of this. Now whether you find the wingers personal beliefs distasteful or not, in no way can it be claimed that he has done anything wrong. He explained his viewpoint and rightfully served no punishment for it. Now racism, homophobia or religious extreme opinions are a massive jump forward from a failure to wear a poppy during a game, but McClean’s argument still stands. If that is a player’s point of view, how can they be punished for it if they act professionally in their job?
This is a problem football will have to face up to soon, the game doesn’t want to be associated with a racist, homophobe or religious zealot, but legally how can you dictate the way somebody thinks. If a player writes an open letter explaining why he, for example, doesn’t like white people, can you then fine that player if he still behaves respectfully for his club. The football associations or clubs would not be able to prevent that person earning a living because of this. Fans and colleagues will be outraged and offended by him but would have to respect his opinion or face problems themselves. It would be a nightmare for the authorities to deal with and a plan has to be ready for when a situation arises. Would that plan be a blanket ban for the deemed ‘politically incorrect’ opinions? How would you enforce that? You cannot go down the route of dictating what people should and shouldn’t believe. Would this extend beyond race into religion too? It is a potential minefield for the governing bodies to deal with.
In January 1999 this minefield was tackled by the English Football Association and the reactions from all quarters highlighted the various extremes. In an interview with a national newspaper, then England manager, Glenn Hoddle expressed his personal belief based around religion that disabled people were being punished for sins in a former life. The public were outraged, he was heavily criticised by not only the national Sports Minister Tony Banks, but also Prime Minister Tony Blair. The media began a campaign which was later labelled a ‘witch hunt’ by disabled right campaigner Lord Ashley [source BBC], who despite being critical of Hoddles views, defended his right to have them. The Football Association chose to terminate Glenn Hoddle’s England contract because of his opinions, in what was considered a sad day for tolerance and freedom of speech. In the years since, the dismissal and ‘angry mob’ reaction to Hoddle’s viewpoint has been roundly acknowledged as poorly handled by all. The man himself could really have taken his employers to task over his dismissal based on beliefs but chose not to, it would have been a PR disaster for the man but he would have been well within his rights.
So will football learn the next time a situation like this arises? Will the media learn? Are any of us really ready to acknowledge and respect a controversial or distasteful point of view? There will be a time when we’ll have to, if football reacts with outrage and the case ends up in a courtroom, then a grey area will become a can of worms, and that can of worms could damage the sport and society immeasurably.