English football seems to be stuck in its re-imagining of Groundhog Day – the latest incident being alleged racist abuse directed at Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger and Tottenham’s Son Heung-min. To echo Stan Collymore’s thoughts on Twitter, the infinite loop goes something like this: racist incident, outrage, condemnation, phone-in debates, talking heads, blame-storming, offers of simplistic solutions to complex problems – before the media moves on to hunt for the next outrage.
Collectively, how do we jump out of the infinite loop? In our divided society, is it possible to have nuanced and balanced dialogue about tackling racism in football or society (look at how Stormzy’s 100% accurate assessment of racism in Britain was twisted)? If we don’t have the patience to focus on solutions for more than two days after a major incident, how can we pretend to have the patience necessary for long-term solutions? Having entered the fray so eloquently and passionately in recent months, I hope that pundits like Gary Neville stay involved and continue to use their platform to help the fight – even during weeks when we do not see any high-profile incidents of abuse.
To make progress, we have to start with an honest view of the problem. We’ve heard many times that racism is both a football and a societal issue. But it is also an economic problem. Times of hardship broadly correlate with rises in discrimination as the search for scapegoats sees the usual suspects taking the blame. This is why our post-financial-crisis world of austerity feels like the 1970s or 1980s. But this time it is different.
The last decade has also seen a collapse in public trust in our leaders, with automation amplifying income inequality and social media identity bubbles inflaming social divides. To regain lost trust, our politicians have lurched towards the extremes. The tone of public discourse has coarsened and dog-whistle racism has become normalised. Society has become what football has always been: fiercely tribal. No wonder that the person on the street – or on the train, or in the stands – feels emboldened.
But this is also clearly a football problem, too. The anonymity of the physical crowd mirrors the anonymity of the virtual social media crowd so that football is on the receiving end of a double whammy of hate. Some of our football pitches, from grassroots through to the professional level, have become spaces for expressing hate and prejudice.
So what is the answer? This is a complex problem that has developed slowly over time. Are we prepared to accept that there may not be one quick, simple solution?
The truth is that many people have a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, but I am not sure anyone in the game really has the picture on the front of the box. To develop that we will need to connect and collaborate more effectively across football, government and law enforcement. Solutions will involve many suggestions that we have already heard to prevent, detect or react to incidents of racism: improving reporting mechanisms and encouraging their use; enhanced stadium supervision and policing; using existing protocols more consistently; consistent club sanctions against individual supporters; effective law enforcement policies; taking players off the field of play where necessary; sanctions against clubs in extreme cases of persistent or widespread abuse.
Many of these powers already exist, if inconsistently applied. We will also need to get creative and work with people outside football like the Centre for Countering Digital Hate. But we must also resist knee-jerk draconian responses. Automatic points deductions for the behaviour of one fan could be an invitation to mischief by opposing fans. Even lifelong bans for supporters can be difficult to enforce. Ultimately, education will be a golden thread that runs through a Prevent-Detect-React strategy, but it is an ongoing challenge that takes time to get right.
We also must remember the majority of fans are part of the solution, not the problem. Millions of supporters want a game free from abuse and understand discrimination should not be a tribal issue. On Monday, it was a group of Chelsea supporters who reported one of their own to the police for alledgedly racially abusing Son during Sunday’s game. That is an attitude we have to encourage and we need to give fans effective toolkits.
We have offered to convene a meeting in the new year with the FA, Premier League, EFL, PFA, League Managers Association and the Football Supporters’ Association to discuss immediate practical steps we can take together. I would cautiously welcome a government inquiry though I have some scepticism about its potential effectiveness. I would not want it to delay action we can take and somehow I doubt the impact of politicians’ own language would be looked at.
Let’s make 2020 a year of teamwork as we fight racism and discrimination together. In the meantime, let’s hope for a peaceful festive period full of goals.