Blowing the Whistle on Prejudice in Football

By Kaammini Chanrai

Last week, after the Champions League fixture that saw Paris Saint-Germain play Chelsea, footage surfaced of a group of Chelsea fans chanting a racist song. ‘We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it’, they sing as they physically prevent a black man from boarding the Parisian Métro. Three men were suspended from Stamford Bridge whilst Chelsea F.C. released the following statement that same day, reprimanding what happened:

‘Such behaviour is abhorrent and has no place in football or society. We will support any criminal action against those involved in such behaviour, and should evidence point to the involvement of Chelsea season ticket holders or members, the club will take the strongest possible action against them, including banning orders.’

This incident is a disgrace and it has rightfully attracted widespread attention and condemnation. Racism in football is pandemic, indicative by examples from last year alone. In April, Villarreal fans racially targeted Barcelona player Dani Alves by hurling a banana at him. Similar events occurred in May with bananas thrown at Milan’s Kevin Constant and Nigel de Jong by Atlanta fans. In August, the League Manager’s Association defended racist and homophobic texts sent by then Crystal Palace manager, Malky Mackay, as ‘banter’. In December, Mario Balotelli pleaded guilty to the FA for an anti-Semitic post on Instagram – Balotelli himself has been subject to racial abuse by Juventus fans and online.

I don’t want to undermine racism in football. The attention that it is receiving is entirely necessary and the discussion must continue in order to tackle such a deeply rooted problem. But I’d like to use this opportunity to open up a wider conversation, which encompasses sexism and homophobia in football as well. Sexism and homophobia are pervasive at football matches and occur so regularly that they have almost been normalised.

I’ve been at football matches where players were subjected to abusive chants for supposedly being gay or queer or transgendered. I’ve attended football matches where catcalls follow the every move of a woman on the pitch. Just recently I went to a match where the female physiotherapist on the pitch bent down to assist a player and a supporter shouted for her to give the player a blowjob. Nobody bats an eyelid. These comments are brushed off like mud on a player’s shoe and dismissed as playful banter.

The absence of openly gay players is well documented and discussed, and it is only recently that LGBT supporters’ groups have sprung up in response to fans’ fear of homophobic abuse, sometimes even from their fellow supporters. Brighton players and fans have been subjected to harassment simply for their town’s associations. A survey last year revealed that 73% of fans in the UK would be comfortable with a member of their national team coming out as gay – a relatively high proportion compared to other countries, and one that was met with praise. This statistic, however, belies the full quarter of British supporters who would reject such a player, let alone the almost certainly hostile reaction if said footballer played for the opposing team. Thomas Hitzlsperger remains the only openly gay player to have played in England’s Premier League – a sad truth which illustrates the antagonism that still exists within the game and the consequent difficulty for players to be open about their homosexuality.

I had never personally been harassed at a football match – not until a few weeks ago, when I attended my team’s Boxing Day fixture. My sister and I accidentally strayed into a sea of West Ham supporters and, without realising it, we were the only two females in the vicinity. It was only when my sister gave me a communicative stare that I properly listened to the singing behind us: “I bet these two take it up the arse,” a group sung repeatedly. “Get your tits out,” a few of them began to shout. I rolled my eyes and we continued walking, deciding it was probably better not to react and let the day’s scoreline speak for itself. There were plenty of police around, some of which definitely heard the abuse, and it was clear that they had been desensitised to such behaviour.

Of course, an indictment of all football fans is entirely unfair. Not all football fans are hooligans. Too many are racist, sexist or homophobic but it would be unfair to chastise all supporters because of the actions of some. I’m a Chelsea fan myself and I – along with most Chelsea fans – would never hurl racist abuse or physically assault another individual on the basis of their skin colour, gender or sexual orientation.

However, that this happens time and time again in football says something about the group mentality of football fans. Why such discrimination occurs is an entirely different question. The exertion of hegemonic masculinity is likely to have relevant implications. Hegemonic masculinity can be described as ‘a question of how particular groups of men inhabit positions of power and wealth, and how they legitimate and reproduce the social relationships that generate their dominance’ (in Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity by Carrigan, Connell and Lee). The existence of this seems evident in many sporting contexts and a situation such as a football match – which brings together a high amount of ‘masculine’ behaviour – is a breeding ground for prejudice.

Another explanation is the effect of collective behaviours. Multiple theories of collective behaviours exist but ‘Contagion Theory’ perhaps best describes this mob mentality in football. Gustave Le Bon stipulated that crowds exert a hypnotic influence over one another, which negates individual responsibility. He said ‘by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs on the ladder of civilisation.’ Along with historical rivalries, strong emotions and an element of anonymity, this is likely to exacerbate prejudice and irrational action.

From a structural perspective, racism and sexism are accepted in entirely different ways universally. Thus, the microcosm of racism and sexism in football pans out in the same way. Sexism is often downplayed in such contexts and it is sometimes dismissed as irrelevant. In her article Female Fandom: Identity, Sexism, and Men’s Professional Football in England, Katharine W. Jones highlights the argument that sexism is not considered to be ‘as important as racism because of the lack of female footballers. They could see the direct effects of racism on players but could not envisage where sexism might take place.’ And yet, female referees and commentators are still hard to come by, sexism exists pervasively towards women’s football and there is a widespread narrative that football belongs to men.

Slowly, things are improving. Although they have been the subject of sexist and offensive remarks, female referees, assistant referees and commentators do exist around the world. The figures are miniscule but they are an improvement from a few years ago and hopefully the barriers to entry will begin to erode sooner rather than later. Moreover, just last week a match to display anti-homophobia was played between Dulwich Hamlet and Stonewall F.C, who are Britain’s top-ranking gay football team and current Gay Football World Champions. The Rainbow Laces campaign, also run by Stonewall, recently saw an array of Arsenal players speaking up against homophobia as well.

Racism, sexism and homophobia are not the problem of only one football club. Such prejudice and discrimination happens across the board, across the world. These issues are institutional, not incidental. They are structural, not isolated. FIFA and UEFA have already sanctioned campaigns to combat racist behaviour, but unfortunately the responsibility of holding people to account has been delegated. Better regulation must be a priority. And as we ‘Say no to racism’ we must also ‘Say no to sexism and homophobia,’ loud and clear.

[I would like to thank my sister for her contribution to this article]

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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