Is Football Exempt From Society's Current Racial Tensions?

Is Football Exempt From Society's Current Racial Tensions?
Amid societies prevailing tensions, it is imperative to reflect upon the football industry to fathom whether it is immune to the ideologies of racial and discriminatory practices. Many would debate that though gazing into the history of football will expose the dark underbelly of the sport, modern-day football is a reflection of the multi-cultural outlook society projects. Yet, statistics and individual encounters depict a complex picture for BAME, religious, female and LGBTQ+ footballers and fans all over the nation. With national figures for crimes reported against racism and prejudice doubling due to the shifting social and political landscape in the UK and US, is racism peering its head into the culture of football once again?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement's presence in the UK has advanced during the last few weeks, it's due to the tensions generated through police brutality and the murders of innocent citizens by the police in the US. With campaigns such as #blackouttuesday and protests across several countries and cities, the movement, according to the website, aims to 'eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes'. 

Many sporting organisations, influential figures and brands have come together to stand in unison with the BLM movement. Countless football clubs have supplanted their league's sleeve patches with the BLM symbol and the EPL have replaced player names with ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the back of their shirt to create awareness of the campaign, stand in solidarity and show a zero-tolerance policy towards racism within football. 

Although football itself cannot be labelled as racist, a minority of attendees and fans can. With a timeline of social changes, we have seen fewer occurrences of racism and discrimination within the sport. The face of football is changing in the UK, at least 25% of professional footballers in England are black. Despite this, The Home Office has announced a 50% rise in football-related hate crimes in England and Wales in 2018/19. Within these crimes, reports recorded incidents relating to hate speech both off and on the pitch. Additionally, statistics produced by Kick It Out shows an incline of 32% for reports of discrimination in the 2018/19 season compared to the previous season. 

Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube make it a lot more accessible for ‘trolls’ to display such behaviours in a much less tolerant society. Despite colour or religion, it is important to state that the majority of footballers have experienced some type of abuse on social media.  

The most recent tirade of abuse was inflicted upon the legendary Arsenal and Crystal Palace player Ian Wright. During the lockdown, Wrighty shared the offensive screenshot on Twitter stating: “You are a f***ing monkey’, ‘C*** c**n monkey n*****’. Direct message to me on IG. This kid [h]as a direct line into me & is able to send this without any worry.” 

Although the remarks were taken incredibly seriously, they were brushed off as an ‘isolated incident’ by many media outlets. 

Just to name a few, 2019 saw United striker, Marcus Rashford, and centre-midfielder, Paul Pogba, at the centre of abuse created through perceptions of reasons for losing and/or general mistakes during games. The racial abuse was aimed at the United players due to missing penalties against Crystal Palace and Wolves, with the majority of the abuse being United ‘Fans’. 

Watford captain, Troy Deeney, and his family were also targeted by racists last year on social media as a result of Watford’s FA Cup defeat. He was later ignored by the platform and told a ‘monkey emoji is not racist’. 

Contrast to what many believe, racism is ever-present within football whether it’s on or off of the pitch. Themes such as discriminatory chanting is still a common culture in football within and outside the UK. Songs which commonly reference cultural differences, monkey noises, distinctive facial features, skin colour, religion and derogatory phrases still run throughout our stadiums. 

Outside of the UK, countries with a less diverse outlook can be viewed as hit harder with racism. Bulgaria was sanctioned with a £65,000 fine, a partial two-game ban and games played behind closed doors after their fans were found to repetitively display racist behaviours in matches against England, Czech Republic and Kosovo. The shameful scenes saw some games needing to be stopped, threatened with abandonment or players walking off of the pitch overshadowing the many highlights of the match.  

Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder, Taison, recently addressed his reactions to being sent off for responding to racist insults from the opposing team in the Ukrainian Premier League. The Brazilian made comments of feeling ‘helpless’ after he left the field in tears as a result of the ref not following the protocol of game abandonment. Though the opposing team were met with a fine and season probation, Taison was still given a 1 match ban. 

Porto forward Moussa Marega walked off the pitch due to a roar of monkey chants caused by scoring against his former club. The player grew even more frustrated due to his team-mates and opposing players trying to persuade him to stay on, ignoring his stance against racism. Marega was also penalised for his reactions with a yellow card. He went to social media to state “I would just like to tell these idiots who come to the stadium to make racist chants, go f*** yourself. I hope I never see you on a football field again. You are a disgrace! “And I also thank the referees for not defending me and for giving me a yellow card because I defend my skin colour.” 

What can be done to challenge racism in football? I believe the 2020 and 1970 football cannot be painted in the same light. We have made astonishing progress for all players to feel welcome into leagues, whether that's domestic or foreign. Though, more can be done to assist the process of continued advancements to the eradication of racism in football.  

The input of BAME professionals with extensive knowledge of the game within the FA and other governing bodies may allow a fresh insight to creating new rules and regulation, giving personal perspectives on circumstances where others might struggle to understand in a particular light.  

Harsher punishments for discriminatory behaviour may discourage fans and spectators from initiating acts of abuse on players and fans, acting as deterrence. 

Increased use of campaigns, like ones we are seeing from the FA and the EPL now, bring awareness to these social issues, educate fans and act as an encouragement for changed behaviours and beliefs.    

Lastly, the reporting of abuse allows officials to remove narrow-minded individuals from our cherished game. This enables clubs and officials to introduce banned attendance to games, restrictions on social media and lawful requirements to attend diversity-based courses. So no, football is not exempt from societies current racial tensions. Nevertheless, with the use of organisations such as Kick It Out and other anti-discriminatory-based groups, we can work with clubs and spectators to confront hatred, promote inclusive policies and work towards constructive change.  


Written by Tyra Wilson

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