The stories of football supporters shouting discriminatory abuse in stadiums or posting it online have become all too familiar.
But the story of how Kick It Out works to educate and change the behaviour and attitudes of those supporters in a one-to-one setting has never been told.
Earlier this year, I took on the role of a football fan who had been referred to Kick It Out’s fan education and engagement manager Alan Bush for using racist and homophobic language towards a player and then repeating it on social media.
Bush designs bespoke sessions tailored to the individual referred to him and the offences they have committed. Concerns over confidentiality meant reporting on a real session would have been impossible – we agreed this was the next best thing to demonstrate the unique work with supporters which Kick It Out undertakes.
My character’s position heading into the session was to try, to an extent, to excuse or justify the words I had used. I argued that my friends had said the same as me, I just happened to be the one who got caught and thrown out. My character’s belief was that words are just words – but I would never say them straight to someone’s face.
Ultimately, I had admitted to police that I referred to a black player as a monkey, and that I used a derogatory homophobic term towards the same player. In the scenario Bush developed, the police opted to deal with my case via a community resolution because a childhood diagnosis of mild autism meant I was considered vulnerable, rather than seeking criminal prosecution as would usually be the case for an offence of this type.
Any expectation I may have had that the session would consist of Bush talking and me listening was quickly extinguished. From the start and throughout, he constantly engaged me, checking in on my thoughts and feelings.
After putting me at ease with some football discussion, he asked me what I thought a hate crime was. He quickly followed up by asking: “Why do you think you are here today?”
One of the first slides in the session showed John Barnes back-heeling a banana off the pitch. Again, he wanted to know what I thought of it.
He then spoke about some of the inclusion initiatives in football, citing the example of the Bangla Bantams at Bradford and the barriers that had to be broken down to encourage people from the South Asian community to attend matches – chiefly the fear of racist abuse from other football fans. He referenced an inclusion initiative at the club my character supports.
I am asked to repeat the abusive words I used – whether I can see how they are offensive, and how black, South Asian or gay fans around me would have felt if they had heard them. I am also asked to read out the offensive tweet I posted.
The early excuses and justifications began to feel increasingly feeble, as Bush addressed the bystander impact of my in-person and online abuse. He challenged my character to see the abuse from a victim’s perspective, in the hope of changing my attitude.
It became increasingly difficult as the session wore on to detach myself from the character brief – to all intents and purposes I now felt personally guilty and remorseful.
The gravity of this really hit me almost an hour in when Bush presented a slide of caricatures, comparing black sports stars to apes.
“What do you think of that, does it stir anything? Do you know the history of where it comes from?” he asked.
“You’re being made to think they’re not human,” I replied.
“You’ve hit the nail on the head there. I always think of racism as being about power – one group that thinks or feels that they are predominantly more powerful than another, that’s their mindset – the ability to control and put down another group of people.
“The reason I’m using these images is because what you shouted, there is a 500-year history of people saying this sort of thing.
“You said earlier when you came in, you don’t see yourself as a racist.
“When you go back to what it actually means and racism being about power, and keeping another group down, how does that make you feel when you see (these images) and then link it to what you said?”
“I’ve said that (the player) is not human,” I replied.
“How do you think that would make him feel?”
“I guess it would have hurt him, but you hate the other team and you’ll say what it takes to hurt them. But it’s crossed the line,” I said.
“The least I want to get is an understanding from you around behaviour change,” Bush continued.
“I want you to walk out of here knowing some things are against the law, some things you can’t say, and if you do there are consequences. And if you choose to refuse to buy into that, then you need to know you can’t come into football stadiums and do it anymore because it’s against the law. You wouldn’t do it in society, why would you do it in a football stadium?”
It was difficult by this point to hold back tears.
I am asked to think about victim impact, and to reflect again on what I think about the words I used.
“Ashamed,” I reply.
“I know it may feel tough,” Bush said.
“It may feel like I am having a go at you. I’m not, I’m just trying to get across to you the impact. I want you to come out of this thinking, ‘Oh, wow, I never thought of that. Well, at least I know that now’. If we get attitude change, brilliant, and if that’s sustainable, fantastic. Behaviour change we need from you.”
He asked if I was an England fan, and whether I could see any link between my abuse to that directed online towards England trio Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho after the Euro 2020 final.
“The only difference is…,” I started to say, before accepting: “There is no difference.”
“I’m glad you said that,” Bush said.
Then came the questions which hit me hardest of all.
“If your friends and family knew you had said and posted something similar to (the England player abuse), what would they have said? What would your son think of you?” Alan asked.
Struggling to speak now, I replied: “He’d be ashamed of me, and he’d be right to be.”
Bush returned to the consequences I could have faced. He outlined the nine protected characteristics under the 2010 Equality Act, and set out the definition of a hate crime. He made it clear that what my character said in the stadium could be deemed a hate crime.
He then showed me a slide detailing recent incidents of abuse, the sanctions imposed and the media coverage the perpetrators received, highlighting the fact that everyone I know and care about would know what I had done.
Returning to my son, he pointed out that if he chose to get married in the US when he grows up, a criminal record would prevent me from travelling.
Towards the end of the session, he said: “I’m not saying you’re all of a sudden going to become this person who’s going to start reporting racist abuse, homophobic abuse within the stadium. I would love it if you did.
“I’d love it if you became an advocate and spoke up about discrimination in football. If you’re not, that’s fine. But (I would) just be satisfied that you understand the things that you’ve said and done and posted on social media are not acceptable in many ways. They’re against the law. And the consequences slide that I talked you through earlier, that could have been you.”
He concludes by saying he is pleased with my progress, but would like another session with me.
In his report on the session to the referring agency, in this case the police, he wrote that I “showed some remorse, but what was noticeably absent was a lack of apology”.
I have thought a lot about that lack of apology in the weeks since. Was I trying too hard, in playing the part of someone with mild autism, to shut off my emotional responses? Would I have said sorry in the presence of the victim, or a bystander who could have been offended by my abuse?
The fact the session is still playing on my mind weeks afterwards suggests to me that the impact on a real offender would be even greater.
Bush said that, to his knowledge, the reoffending rate for those attending sessions is zero, even where the client is in belligerent mood at the start.
Kick It Out may not be able to prevent new abusers polluting football’s stadiums and online spaces, but its education sessions feel like a highly effective tool in tackling those who abuse and holding them accountable.
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