Hate and discrimination in the beautiful game

CAST member Alison Sampson considers how homophobia and racism damage our beautiful game.

I first came to the Valley about the age of four and I had never had any interest in football before this. I had no idea what was going on in terms of the match but the one thing I did know was that I felt really at home and wanted to come back. I have always looked back on those early matches fondly. Well, when I say "look" I really mean "feel", as I can barely remember anything. The feeling that has always stuck with me was that at no point did anyone truly care that I had no idea about football. I remember asking my Dad what had to happen and being told simply about getting the ball in the net. Of course, being so little it took me a bit of time to understand what net we actually wanted to get the ball in and it confused me slightly that we had a keeper but didn’t want it in his net. I also remember (I obviously wouldn’t have been able to put into words at the time) a feeling of being totally safe and a sense of inclusivity. It probably helped that I saw other female fans.

However, as the years have gone by this has changed. I have experienced the rise of swearing to a level that, even as someone who has used a few swear words in her time, is shocking. It’s not just the swearing, its what I’ve watched this lead to - the belief that people can say whatever they like with no thought to the consequences and that it is all utterly acceptable because it’s a football match. The terrible thing is that it is commonplace and I’ve often been told “That’s just football”.

Recently in England we saw the first ever match stopped due to racism. This led me to ask “what is happening to football?” This was my reaction as a football fan of over twenty years who couldn’t get their head around how this was happening. I’ve been thinking about this for some time and I came to the conclusion that the game in general and the fans have allowed this to happen. That’s not say that there hasn’t been attempts by anyone to stop it, but that those attempts were deemed enough. They clearly weren't. The issue is that hate has been allowed to fester within the game of football and this in turn leads to discrimination of all kinds, not just racism. We really should be calling each other out about our behaviour!

I am not the only person who has come to the conclusion that football has allowed this to happen. In a documentary for the BBC called ‘Gareth Thomas v Homophobia: Hate in the Beautiful Game’ and in a follow-up ‘Gareth Thomas v Homophobia: The Legacy’, the ex-rugby player comes to the same conclusion. When I watched the original programme, it backed up an idea I had been forming for some time that centred around one question: “Where are the players?”. There on screen was Justin Fashanu’s niece, who campaigns against homophobia in football in the name of her uncle, saying exactly the same thing. Justin Fashanu was the first, and the last, footballer to come out as gay while playing. What made his situation worse was that he was also black at a time when racism was rife in football. He faced discrimination on both fronts and as a result took his own life. This should never have happened -  I think we can all agree with that! What his niece says is that the players should be showing their support and I agree with that. Players should be involved in making the game a more inclusive game for everyone regardless of who they are. Though there is a huge issue with this, they won’t. They won’t because of the abuse they get back for doing so. Players don’t typically speak on subjects like this because, initially, they have been told not to and now it has become even worse with social media. It is not worth them trying, which is a sad state of affairs.

In the follow-up documentary Gareth Thomas revealed the use of a ‘You Can Play’ video mainly done by teams in sports in America and Canada to promote inclusivity. He even went as far as to attempt to have one made and shown at a match by a Premier League club. At the time Cardiff City were the only team to agree to this and showed it at their match. Other clubs did their best to ignore him or say “We would love to but…”. This is not good enough in a game that has at least suggested it wants to be more inclusive. I think it is agreed by most that one weekend a season for the ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign is not enough to bring about inclusivity in football and that more needs doing. Things have definitely moved on from the situation referenced by Gareth in his first documentary where both the Premier League and the FA had suggested that the reason no players had come out as gay or bisexual was because there weren’t any currently playing. They have now thankfully accepted this is not the case. I think we can all agree it’s because they wouldn’t be accepted in football at this time and for no other reason than discrimination; as in no way does something like someone’s skin colour, gender or sexual orientation have any impact on their ability to play or support football.

The only other known gay footballer to have played in England is the American international Robbie Rogers who retired in 2017 whilst at LA Galaxy. He was at Leeds United for a year from January 2012, which included a loan to Stevenage. When he returned from his loan, he decided to leave Leeds. Not long after that he announced his retirement from football at the age of twenty five and he came out as gay. He took a brief break from the game but decided to return to playing in America. In ‘Gareth Thomas v Homophobia: Hate in the Beautiful Game’ he recalls his time at Leeds and why he knew at the time he would never have been able to come out as gay. He spoke about the pack mentality and the fact that people fed off each other and became more aggressive if something offensive was said but deemed acceptable by not being challenged. He said he was extremely disgusted at the fact that there were even kids feeding off their parents’ aggression. He made the point that English fans say things which they hope will affect a match but in fact have an impact on people’s emotional state and happiness. He went on to talk about things he had heard said within football when people didn’t know he was gay.  He said some coaches would say things like “Don’t pass like a faggot” and even heard one teammate say to another “imagine one man actually being in love with another man, how disgusting would that be”. He said the hardest part was just dealing with the words people said and that you could never realise how much words could “be so damaging to your confidence and your soul”. I literally cannot believe this could even happen! Thankfully, at Leeds at least, as was seen in ‘The legacy’ documentary, things have much improved but unfortunately things like this go on, otherwise how did a football match in England get stopped?

Incidents like this are not just happening in the grounds. It is even more worrying that it is happening online since this a much easier place for people to discriminate by hiding behind not only the keyboard but words such as “banter”. I and other female Charlton fans have been on the end of sexism and received abuse for wanting people to be nicer to one another when expressing their views, as we’re being told by male fans that we are “snowflakes”, to “get back to the kitchen” and even what we’ve “got to realise”. This suggests an attitude that we as women are lucky even to be allowed into football but what they are forgetting, particularly at Charlton, is that there is a long history of female fans and that there are black and white clips of women with the wooden rattles so many football fans used to have. Women are just as big a part of football as men.

As a fan who was brought up on the different way in which so many things in football were done at Charlton, this is something I cannot get my head round. How did we even get to this point? Why are there people feeling uncomfortable and even potentially unsafe to play or support football and made to feel like it is them who should be leaving? This should not be happening! So, what do we do? In my opinion acknowledgement is the first step to changing anything. Football as a whole needs to able to accept its faults and then get on and do something. I believe that, if fans and players work together, football can be a safe and inclusive place for all. This isn’t creating some utopia (as has been suggested to me). It is just asking people to think before they speak, chant and type, and to remember that they are actually affecting people when they throw insults about. It is just asking people to be careful with the words they use. I’m not saying that I expect people not to use swear words but to remember that there isn’t really a need to use them at all and especially not every other word. People are entitled to want to experience football in a better way.

I also think more supporters would be prepared to stand up to discrimination if players were encouraged to do things such as express solidarity online. If players say that they would be comfortable with having a gay or bisexual teammate or if a white player speaks out on racism it sets an improved new tone.  I generally don’t believe they don’t want to be doing more. In addition to this, I think clubs need to get more involved in tackling not only the abuse that occurs in grounds but to work with social media to stop fans being discriminative online and help fans who report such incidents. Social media could then be a much better platform for all to use. Overall, I think if players are able to help educate and together we worked towards making football more inclusive, it would not only be a better environment for all, but a safe one for a gay or bisexual player to feel able to come out and stop hiding. I have always believed that, with our history of being one of the clubs to stand up against racism, we would be the club to next have a gay or bisexual player came out, which is long overdue! As Gareth Thomas said in his documentary it seems football feels “if you are not the stereotypical man or woman we expect you to be then we’re allowed to abuse you for 90 minutes. That in my book, ain’t right!”.

The Gareth Thomas documentary can be seen here: