Racism in football still hasn’t been kicked out

It’s been 27 years since the establishment of Kick It Out, English football’s equality and inclusion organisation, which works with the football, education and community sectors to challenge discrimination and encourage inclusive practices.

Sadly, racism, abuse and discrimination are still rife in society, but the very nature of chanting in football stadiums makes some believe it is a licence to hurl insults at team players.

On Saturday 5 December 2020, at a Millwall home match against Derby County, some of the 2,000 fans booed players who “took the knee” before the start of the game. Although players, officials and staff at Premier League and English Football League games have been taking the knee before games since June, Saturday’s match was the first to host fans since the second lockdown was lifted. Boos were also heard amongst the 1,000 fans in the JobServe Community Stadium, Colchester, prior to the match between Colchester United and Grimsby Town.

Although Millwall’s supporters’ club claimed that the motives behind the booing were not racist, no other explanation was given as to what the motive was. As Kick It Out Chairman, Sanjay Bhandari said, “Racists rarely admit they are racists — they try to hide their backlash under a seemingly respectable cloak.”

On Monday 30 November, BBC One aired the documentary Anton Ferdinand: Football, Racism and Me, in which the now retired Queens Park Rangers’ footballer spoke about the constant racial abuse that he suffered, including an on-pitch incident in 2011 in which Chelsea player, John Terry, used racially abusive language. Terry was eventually found guilty, fined £220,0000 and banned for just four matches by the FA. Ferdinand also received bullets in the post and missiles were thrown at this mothers’ house.

A House of Lords’ Library Briefing earlier this year (Racism in Football: Tackling Abusive Behaviour) showed that there has been an increase in the number of racist incidents reported in professional and grassroots football in recent years.

According to the Public Order Act 1986, a person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

Roderick Lynch Chair of Liberal Democrat Campaign for Racial Equality, himself a football fan asks “Why, therefore, are we allowing racist fans back into stadiums? How can we ensure that such fans are banned for life and punished accordingly?  Should tougher penalties be imposed on players who exhibit racist behaviour? How many perpetrators are actually taken to court? What more can be done to combat online racism?”

This is everyone’s responsibility – whether it is an individual reporting an incident, the moderators of online platforms, the owners of football clubs or the government, the police and the judicial system. It has to be a collective effort.

Participating in, or watching sport, should be an enjoyable pursuit.

It brings together people from all walks of life and should therefore be the perfect situation to foster inclusion.

* Rabina Khan is a councillor in Tower Hamlets and Special Advisor to Lib Dem peers. Her book, book My Hair is Pink Under This Veil (BiteBack Publishers) is due out in March 2021.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Although Millwall’s supporters’ club claimed that the motives behind the booing were not racist, no other explanation was given as to what the motive was. As Kick It Out Chairman, Sanjay Bhandari said, “Racists rarely admit they are racists — they try to hide their backlash under a seemingly respectable cloak.”

    In the linked article, the Fan Club claim that it was a protest against the ‘extreme politics’ of the Black Lives Matter organisation – that’s the ‘cloak’ the Bhandari is referring to.

    If that motive is sincere, is that racist?

    If it’s insincere or false, would a prosecution under the Public Order Act quoted be possible? I suspect it would be difficult to prove or disprove the motive and sincerity unless otherwise contradicted somewhere publicly.

    If it’s not possible to prosecute, how can racist fans be identified to prevent them entering back into stadiums, as Lynch wants?

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Dec '20 - 3:21pm

    “…the Fan Club claim that it was a protest against the ‘extreme politics’ of the Black Lives Matter organisation”

    Extreme politics? Campaigning against racial discrimination? Oh please!

  • Update…

    Pleased to report the exact opposite happened tonight at Millwall in the match with QPR. According to the BBC “Millwall fans did themselves proud”.

  • Barry Fleet 9th Dec '20 - 9:46am

    Racist behaviour is intolerable. The chairman of Colchester United has issued an excellent statement making it clear that it won’t be tolerated there. Maybe those taking the knee should be applauded by the non racist fans attending.

  • David Garlick 9th Dec '20 - 10:15am

    As a football supporter I know that the whole of society is represented in every club. The campaign to stamp out racism in football as every where else, has to continue and I doubt it will ever stop being needed. We must keep at it.

  • Pat Stokes-Smith 9th Dec '20 - 10:54am

    My parents were Leeds United supporters in the 1950’s to 1970’s and watched the talented Albert Louis Johanneson, a South African professional footballer who was one of the first high-profile black men, of any nationality, to play top-flight football in England. He is recognised as being the first person of African heritage to play in the FA Cup final in 1965. They did not like the racist chanting he received from supporters of his own team, even though some would argue it was just fun. How sad that things haven’t really changed much.

  • Steve Trevethan 9th Dec '20 - 4:49pm

    As are football supporters, so is society?

    Football has made significant efforts to dilute overt racism but can it manage
    racist problems by itself?

    The racist brand is very, very strong in England. Cummings and Johnson plan to appropriate it and target the areas of England hardest hit by neo-liberalism.
    (From https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/)

    Might our party recognise this danger, highlight it and do something about it?

  • James Moore 10th Dec '20 - 6:22pm

    People have the right to ‘take the knee’. People also have the right to show their displeasure at political gestures without the fear of arrest or legal recrimination.

    There are people who believe the extremists in BLM have put back race relations in Britain several decades. I may not agree with them, but they have a right to express that view. The BLM political group have certainly polarised opinion. We need forms of community activism that bring people together, rather than ones that exploit group differences for political ends.

    Liberals should certainly not be advocating the use of the Public Order Act against behaviour which simply offends prevailing political sensibilities. The right to offend and be offended is necessary for free speech.

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Dec '20 - 7:10pm

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/10/stopping-players-taking-the-knee-millwall-racists-victory – article by Emy Onuora

    “In researching my book about the history of racism in football, a question I asked every player I spoke to was, “where were the most hostile places for a black professional?” In almost all cases, Millwall’s ground was on the list. Spitting, monkey chants and banana throwing were part of the experience of black players 30 or 40 years ago: so, while booing the taking of a knee might to some represent progress, in other ways it seems little has changed.”
    “Yes, taking the knee – much like refusing to give up a seat on a bus – is a political act. But it’s an act that any fair-minded individual should support and empathise with. And this week the acts of those in positions of power, from football club owners to government ministers, have set back the cause of race equality.”

  • Michael Bukola 10th Dec '20 - 9:42pm

    As someone of an ethnic background, local resident, former ward councillor for Millwall FC, who has sat on Millwall’s anti-racist trust for a number of years, the last week has been very disturbing. It’s always been a case of “one-step forward, two steps back” for Millwall. I am proud of the work achieved in getting rid of the scourge of hooliganism, in collaboration with the local community, stakeholders, encouraging a more family-orientated, inclusive atmosphere. The Club’s notorious past will sadly always precede it and will leave it vulnerable to a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction.

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