Non-League Football

Non-League clubs need to drive-out prejudice

Crowd at LoughboroughThe very revealing survey undertaken by the Non-League Paper (NLP) should act as a prompt to non-league clubs up and down the country to clamp-down on bad language at games in 2015-16.

The statistics were really quire damning and the NLP deserves credit for highlighting unacceptable racism, sexism and homophobia at non-league games.

It’s about time that people really got their heads out of the sand on this issue. Last season, I heard the following comments at football grounds across several levels:

“Serbians – rapists and murderers”
“We’re playing the jew boys of Wingate”
“We don’t want your sort here” – Tottenham fan talkng to a black Spurs fan
“That Indian player won’t be allowed near the corner flag. He will want to open a shop on it”
“The trouble with black players – no heart”
“Women referees? They don’t understand the game”

There is a different kind of racism present in the game today. It’s no longer solely aimed at black players, but now the geo-political problems in the world have given rise to anti-Islamic comments being made. And they are on the increase. It’s not confined to Britain – on a recent trip to Sweden, it was noticeable that when the players’ names were read out over the tannoy, there was a muted response to the announcement of muslim players. Even though black players are now a big percentage of the nation’s football talent, the NLP revealed that 33% of survey respondents witnessed racist comments in 2014-15 season.

The England Women did a lot to dispel the theory that girls can’t play football. But sexism is rife in football and the lewd comments made when a woman encroaches onto a testosterone-high environment underline how far we have to go before the real world enters football. Just listen to the sexual innuendo when a female physio takes the field. The NLP’s figures are dreadful – some 51% of people had heard sexist language last season. That said, it is better than in the days when referees like Alison Chapman were called, “bitch….slag…whore” for awarding a last minute penalty at Croydon’s Albert Road Arena….by club officials.

Back in 1999, I complained about a “heady mixture of racism and homophobia” at an Isthmian League game. I was lambasted for it – somebody even wanted me banned for life for raising the issue – but a decade later, somebody did likewise and was also heavily abused for it. It has taken too long to get to the point where people can even address the issue of homosexuality without it being used as an insult or taunt. But it remains the big taboo in football as the NLP reveals – some 58% of survey participants heard homophobic comments in 2014-15. It’s the easier option for ignorant football fans as they would assume that nobody on the pitch is “queer” and football and homosexuality are just not compatible. Racism and sexism are difficult to pull-off as half of non-league players are black (certainly in the south of England) and, increasingly, women are more and more visible in the game. If you want something that snowballs, for fear of being outside the gang or sympathetic, it’s homophobia. Football is waiting for the first [current] player to “come-out” – when that happens, and it will take a brave man to be the trail-blazer, I predict it will change the shape of football. Some of the most creative and dynamic business people in Britain are gay and so far, the football industry has not really tapped into that.

The solution to unwanted noise is tougher stewarding at non-league games. Ejection and bans. In the case of race and sex, steps are being taken to ensure clubs embrace inclusion. People should not look the other way when they hear the odd Neanderthal supporter mouthing off. As for the gay community, clubs should introduce more initiatives around encouraging the 7% of the UK population estimated to be gay to become more involved. For a step three crowd of 350, that’s around 25 people. That’s a significant segment of society to be excluded.

There are encouraging signs across all of these groups, however. Generally, our children are more liberal, more politically correct and more culturally aware than any of us over the age of 40. In the corporate world, big strides have been taken in educating people that diversity is an important part of a successful business. Whether people believe it or not, it is fashionable to peddle diversity, but it is also eminently correct. It is only a matter of time before the terraces and stands of football grounds will be required to fall in line – from Premier League to grassroots level.

In the meantime, hats-off to the NLP.

Categories: Non-League Football

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