SFA policy failing to address sectarian and racist abuse

Late in February, Bangor-born Josh Magennis – a Northern Irish striker for Kilmarnock – was subject to racist abuse from a Hearts fan during his team’s 1-0 defeat at Tynecastle. This abuse was not because of his skin colour, according to a Hearts statement following the allegation; it was “anti-Irish”. There has been a lot written about racism and football over the years, with UEFA and Fifa’s large scale endorsement of anti-racism campaigns across the footballing world seeming to reduce the number of racist attacks that players are exposed. However, in the curiously football-mad country in which we live, racism arguably takes a back seat in the fight against bigotry.

Sectarianism remains a large-scale problem in Scotland. According to a Scottish Government survey in 2014 that looked into social attitudes towards sectarianism, 88 per cent of Scots believe that it remains a problem in Scotland. Most damning of all for the SFA and football clubs across Scotland, football was demarcated as the “main factor” contributing to sectarianism. A massive 55 per cent of Scots believe it is the main factor, and an astonishing 88 per cent mentioned it as a contributing factor.

This becomes even more shocking when compared with attitudes to more outwardly sectarian activities such as Orange Order and Irish Republican marches, which are seen to contribute to sectarianism by 79 per cent and 70 per cent of Scots respectively.  Incredibly though, only 13 per cent and three per cent respectively believe that they are the main factor driving sectarianism in Scotland. This perceived dominance of football in the prevalence of sectarianism in Scotland does not make pretty reading for such a proud footballing nation. The SFA’s attempts to clamp down on sectarianism, and the Scottish Government’s attempt at enshrining anti-sectarian and anti-racism policy into law through the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act of 2012, reflect the disappointment in Scottish football.

2012’s Act intended to set out the Government’s clear opposition to sectarian and racist activities at football grounds. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Act is the fact that, while it covers racial hatred, it explicitly states when referring to the new law that, “the offence will cover sectarian and other offensive chanting”, and when listing expressions or incitements of hatred, the Act puts religion ahead of race.  At football clubs the response to sectarianism has become far less accommodating.

Each of the Scottish Premiership’s teams has an Unacceptable Conduct policy on their website. However, accessibility and knowledge of these policies remain an issue. Dingwall-based Ross County’s policy is hidden under their visitor guide, and is not accessible directly from the first page. Dundee FC’s policy is not explicitly different from their general terms and conditions, and is again very difficult to find. Rangers’ policy is tucked well out of the way under their ‘Fans’ tab. The SFA do not help themselves either, with their clearest anti-sectarian and anti-racism policy close to impossible to find on their website, unless you download their most recent SFA Handbook.

While the case of Magennis is sadly not unusual, it does highlight the issues surrounding anti-sectarian and anti-racism policy that professional football clubs can struggle to implement. It is difficult to question Scottish football’s attitude towards sectarianism; their clear and unifying voice against it in the media and through the SFA is only a good thing, but issues about the accessibility of club policy perhaps highlight a  reluctance to accept that there is a problem of sectarianism within Scottish football.

While examples of sectarian chanting in Europe and domestically remain existent – most recently with Celtic fans at a Scottish Cup game at Stranraer – it is clear that Scottish football has a long way to go to extract itself from a damaging and destructive theme within its fan-base.

Image courtesy of Terry (CC BY 2.0)

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