In light of the banana skin thrown at Gabonese international footballer Pierre Patrick Aubameyang during last Sunday’s North London Derby and the Homophobic abuse sung by Huddersfield supporters in their match with Brighton the day before, the football community continues to soul search for the antidote to the prejudice that is still apparent in modern football stadia each weekend.
It’s easy to overlook incidents like these as either committed by a small group of idiots or just misplaced banter respectively, particularly when you’re not directly affected by the prejudice. However, it’s just as easy to over compensate and find fault in minor issues where there is no fault.
Comedian Matt Lucas has spoken about his experiences of Homophobic chants at football games. He said on a BBC documentary about football and its attitude towards homosexuality back in 2012 that you had to be able to have a “bit of a laugh”. But, whilst he sees chants like “we can see you holding hands” as harmless, he recognised that there is an ugly side to it, referencing the chant sung about Sol Campbell which makes false claims that he is a homosexual living with HIV.
As a Brighton fan I’ve heard plenty of homophobic chanting at matches, including a few references to HIV. Sadly, whilst a lot of homophobic chants are less unpleasant than this, there are periodic occurrences of the uglier variety. And no matter how often you hear it, it’s always shocking. In fact it’s not just in the stands. When going to Brighton away games I, like many other Brighton fans, have experienced one-on-one homophobic abuse aimed at me because of the football shirt I wear. Personally I can easily just ignore the abuse and laugh in pity at the individual giving it out, but there is no doubt that for others it would deter them from going to a game again.
Another person, I find worth listening to on the subject of discrimination is Comedian Nish Kumar. He commented in the guardian recently that as a society previously “we were in denial about the extent to which Britain had cured itself of the poison of racism. We’re definitely not in denial about it now.” Even if you disagree with his overt political viewpoint, it’s hard to disagree with this point given the rise in popularity of nationalist, at times racist, political views over the last few years. A political shift that has shown as a society, not just in Britain but across much of the Western world, we have become more aware of the prejudice within our mix that we would liked to have thought had been eradicated. And the recent incidents in the Premier League last weekend bring this to our attention even more.
Many supporters of clubs accused of discriminatory chanting will say it’s all about creating a unwelcome atmosphere for the visitors and just ‘part of the game’. This is an argument many Burnley fans made after the booing of Gaetan Bong last season led to accusations of racism. But whilst no malice may be intended by those giving out abuse from the stands, prejudice of all kinds is still very prevalent in modern society, be it in our football stadiums, in our workplaces or in our politics. So to accept it under the premise of ‘banter’ would be at the risk of normalising this kind of discrimination.
With the 24 hour news cycle and the constant scrutiny on social media platforms that now exists, it’s easy for these incidents to be taken out of proportion. The recent documentary on ITV “Out of their Skin” fronted by Ian Wright certainly showed that football and society has come along way from the days when monkey chants and uses of the racist terminology was common place in Britain. From the shocking clips of the far-right political group the National Front, to the tales of former Chelsea player Paul Cannoville being racially abused by his own supporters, it’s worth remembering things have been a lot worse in the not to distant past. Whilst the recent incidents are deplorable, they are a long way from the aggressively sinister attitudes towards minority groups in the 70’s and 80’s.
But nonetheless there is still a long way to go before we can genuinely claim equality. Be it the lack of Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups represented in football, something Brighton’s very own Chris Hughton has spoken about on multiple occasions. Be it the evident homophobia at most Brighton games shown by opposition supporters. Or be it the blatant sexist behaviour most women in football often talk of regularly dealing with. In fact a recent report from the equality group Women in Football stated that reports of discrimination in women’s football had risen by 400% during the 2017/18 season.
Football being a predominantly male sport has meant that sexism isn’t as popularly called out as other forms of discrimination. From the inaugural Women’s Ballon D’or winner Ada Hegerberg upon receiving the award being asked presenter Martin Solveig if she knew how to twerk. To Eni Eluko being patronisingly clapped by Patrice Evra for making a good point during the half time punditry of ITV’s coverage at this summers World Cup. Or the derision shown to another female pundit Alex Scott, every time she appears on TV. Sexism is as prevalent, if not more prevalent, than any form of prejudice in football today.
When assistant referee Sian Massey was unwillingly caught up in the Richard Keys and Andy Gray sexism saga that led to them both leaving Sky, she subsequently came under a lot of attention from the media, mostly out of sympathy. So much so that every right decision she made was seemingly picked out by pundits on all football programmes for praise, a well intended but nonetheless patronising gesture we could all do without. For Women to be truly accepted in football, we need to stop treating them as if they’re a novelty act. Sian Massey and Alex Scott have both earned their right to be in the jobs they hold, a statement without question for most male pundits or officials, but one women in the same positions have to tolerate on a daily basis.
In isolation all this may appear fairly harmless, but put together it paints a much more worrying picture of modern football. Whilst the chants from fans towards their opposition counterparts can often just be put down to ‘banter’ and part of creating an unwelcoming atmosphere for the visitors, they can also create an unwelcome atmosphere for many minority communities.
In a week where the Premier League were promoting diversity through its rainbow laces campaign, ironically at the same time the type of prejudice it aims to eradicate has been brought to the foreground of public’s consciousness. Whilst there have been darker days in British football, in order to ensure a true and meaningful form of diversity is achieved we can’t afford to let complacency set in. Even if some deem it banter, or isolated incidents committed by idiots, there are certain thing that just shouldn’t be accepted and more needs to be done to eradicate it.
But how? In football stadiums self-policing of fans by fellow fans has provided a great deal of the progress seen since the 1980s and is still a large part of eradicating discrimination in football stadiums now. In a blog on the Crystal Palace fan site Red n Blue army, one fan’s talks of his personal battle dealing with the homophobic chants from his own fans during Tuesday’s derby against Brighton and whether self-policing is enough or whether to report it. In my eyes self-policing can only do so much. Many of those starting these chants know it’s wrong to do so and revel in it, being told this by a fellow supporter will only encourage them.
I see the best solution as to punish the clubs these fans hold dear. Only when the prospects of their club is at stake will these people act responsibly. And only then will clubs take genuine evasive action and punish fans for their behaviour.
The sight of a banana skin splattering over the Arsenal’s players rainbow laces, laces there in support of diversity, is a lasting image of the issues British society still has to deal with in order to create genuine equality. Now, as ever, football must recognise the important part that it must play in continuing this process.