A leading figure from Kick It Out has labelled grassroots football in this country as the “wild, wild west” in regards to the level of discrimination that takes place at that level and has even gone as far as calling for parents who are found of guilty of abusive behaviour to be banned from watching their children play.
Troy Townsend, Kick It Out’s development officer, was speaking on the day that the anti-discrimination organisation released figures which showed reports of discrimination across all levels of football rose by a third last season, from 319 in the previous year to 422, with racism remaining the most common form of discrimination, in both professional and grassroots football, constituting 65% of reports – a 43% rise. Faith‑based discrimination, which includes Islamophobia and antisemitism, rose higher than any other across, with reports increasing by 75% from 36 to 63.
Townsend admits the findings are a concern, especially given this is the seventh year in succession that there has been a rise in such reports, and expressed particularly fears for what is taking place below the professional level.
“For me, at the moment, it’s like the wild wild west. It’s a free-for-all out there. I have genuine concerns that something may happen,” he said. “We see some pretty horrendous stuff. We’ve seen actual bodily harm. Blood pouring out of a player’s face, his shirt on the ground with blood all over it. Targeted Islamophobia at its worst degree.”
Of the 109 reports of discrimination that Kick It Out received related to grassroots football, 40% were specficially related to youth football and it is in this area that Townsend has called for particularly strong measures. “What is it going to take for us to really make a difference at that level?” said Townsend. “The punishment needs to be that they [the people responsible] have to go. Imagine telling a parent that they are no longer allowed to watch their son or daughter play football because of something they have done? Or that they are on a semi-ban? Good behaviour education and you are allowed back.
“People may say that’s extreme but they are not living the life of someone who has been discriminated against. We need to start pushing out the worst of sanctions to really hit home hard.”
Townsend believes Kick It Out’s latest report on the amount of racism and other types of discriminatory abuse in football is only a “snapshot of what is happening out there”, saying: “If football was to collate its information I think we’d be really talking about a problem. Our stats would go through the roof if we reached out more and people thought reporting [abuse] is the first step in eradicating discrimination from our game.
“It’s lawless at grassroots at the moment. Some of the stuff we hear is horrendous from the lowest ages up to the highest ages of youth football.
“A lot of it involves parents being the perpetrators. A lot of it is player on player or language that you wonder how they know these words at that age. We’ve never got it right at grassroots – the stats don’t lie.
“I appreciate there’s usually only one official and it’s a ’he said, I said’ situation, but we have to come up with something more effective and hold those people to account.”
In Kick It Out’s overall figures, which include social media incidents, discrimination reports increased to 581, a 12% rise from the season before (520). The increase should not come as a surprise after a season that witnessed numerous high-profile examples of overt discrimination, with stars such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mohamed Salah and Raheem Sterling all subjected to abuse.
Townsend said it is hard to tell if racism is on the rise, racists are more “emboldened” to broadcast their views because of the contentious political climate or more people are just more willing to report abuse.
“We’re in a worrying period of time, and it is a societal problem, but I can’t affect that. What we can do is talk about what we can do inside the game.”
He said that people needed to have faith their complaints would be taken seriously, which means speeding up the time it takes to complete discrimination cases and keep complainants more informed of what is happening throughout the process.
Townsend admitted the charity’s relationship with the Football Association, which ultimately runs the disciplinary process, was “strained” in the past but is now better, albeit with room to improve, likewise Kick It Out’s links with the clubs and leagues.