BY PAUL BREEN

Issue 14 of The Football Pink starts out with a line of dedication “to the football of Scotland – a place of great contrasts; beauty and ugliness; charm and violence; passion and apathy.”

Last Friday, 21st October 2016, the focus shifted to discussion, debate, and academic analysis, when the first ever conference on ‘Football, Education, and Prejudice’ took place in Glasgow, the traditional epicentre of Scottish football. There, a range of speakers from across Britain and Ireland gathered to discuss issues sometimes dismissed in the media as mere banter. Topics for discussion centred upon three main areas – homophobia/gender; sectarianism; and racism/xenophobia.

The first keynote speaker, Dr. Jamie Cleland from the University of Loughborough, discussed the issue of ‘Changing attitudes to homophobia in the game.’ Jamie’s extensive research in this area and analysis of football supporters’ discussions on the matter suggests that fans are ready to accept gay players in their team colours. Individually, most professional footballers feel the same. Therefore, there is an element of surprise that no gay footballers have yet declared their sexuality in public in the British male game. Possibly, as highlighted in the keynote speech, the internal culture of the game and the dressing room prevents such a scenario much more than attitudes or actions upon the terraces.

The suggestion here was that football supporters as a group might be far more tolerant than the media sometimes portray them, and this was backed up by a subsequent presentation from Dr. Rory Magrath of Southampton Solent University who has carried out research on the views of professional footballers themselves. Again, individually they will be tolerant and protective of gay team mates, but this may not translate into any strong desire to see somebody on their own side coming out. This may be partly due to the fact that such a scenario would draw huge attention from the media, and invade the traditional inner sanctum of the dressing room. Whatever the reason, Rory’s work once more supported the idea that fans have moved far from the days when the first black players were subjected to so much abuse from the terraces. But there remains a lingering fear on the part of teams to be the first to buck a trend of secrecy within the inner culture of football.

That inner culture of football remains largely masculine, with limited opportunities for women to take on leadership roles, as later discussed by Dr. Eilidh Macrae from the University of the West of Scotland. In her presentation, Eilidh highlighted the barriers that exist for women, both socially and professionally, in attempting to break into positions of power in traditionally male sports. This presentation had a particular resonance with my own, which was given later in the day where I discussed the economics of modern day football club ownership, using my local team Charlton Athletic as one example. There, the Chief Executive of the club Katrien Meire, is indeed female but has earned greater publicity for her political and economic actions than for her gender. Such publicity does little to assist in breaking down the barriers spoken of in Eilidh’s presentation and at the same time offer a challenge to us all, as demanded by Dr. David Goldblatt later in the day. That challenge is to have far greater participation for women at all levels of the game, and to think more radically about the ways in which we can make this happen – right now.

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Thinking radically, for example, what has really changed by fining the Brentford player Alan McCormack for alleged sexist comments made to a female official in a Championship match? Surely the most educational solution to this would be to insist that for the rest of the season, a full set of female officials must take charge of proceedings at every single Brentford home game. That might then serve to prove that women can do just as good a job as men, and create publicity beneficial for all concerned – including Brentford themselves who can rightly feel stung by the way that the football authorities seem to work at present. They pick out one or two individuals for castigation without ever resolving the far deeper issues that lie at the heart of prejudice and racism.

Perhaps there is no more heavily debated and difficult to define area of prejudice in Scotland than the existence of sectarianism. This was to be the feature of the early afternoon session at the conference once LEAP Sports and Stonewall Scotland had offered further sessions on practical solutions to address homophobia. The keynote speaker here was the legendary Scottish author and journalist Archie MacPherson, bringing with him a specialist knowledge of the Glasgow derby, and the life of Jock Stein, the first Protestant manager of Celtic Football Club. Archie’s stories illuminated the room without the aid of any technologies other than his voice, his memories, and his humour.

So often we hear tales of Celtic and Rangers told in stark black and white, or shades of hooped green versus royal blue, but Archie showed his audience that there are more layers to the story than can be captured in binary terms. Like my own presentation and that of several others on the day, he emphasised the economics and real politics of the situation in Glasgow, without ever downplaying the genuine sectarianism that exists. Such sectarianism would be dissected in further detail later in a panel discussion chaired by conference organiser Sean Huddleston. Again, as with so much of the day’s proceedings, the meaty discussion provided further food for thought. For example, how much of the ‘Old Firm’ rivalry is fuelled by media representations? When people sing songs of their tribe, do they actually consider the words carefully, deliberately, and conscientiously? Are some Rangers fans literally desiring to swim up to their knees in Fenian blood when they chant their ‘Billy Boys’ anthem? Or is this no different to the rivalry of Liverpool and Manchester United?

Those are questions I cannot answer after one day of a conference in Scotland but they are increasingly being asked in a legal context where again the focus is on individuals rather than the broader social environment that causes these problems. This was highlighted by two very interesting presentations from Rosmarijn van Kleef, of the University of Leiden, and Maureen McBride from the University of Glasgow. Rosmarijn spoke of ‘The Liability of football clubs for supporters’ misconduct’ whilst Maureen conducted a very pragmatic critique of ‘The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act (2012).’ Here again, as voiced at the outset in Dr. Jamie Cleland’s presentation, the focus is on the culture of the terraces whereas maybe there is a need for more contextualised interpretations. Picking out random fans and making an example of them is not the long-term solution to stopping offensive behaviour, appalling as it is, especially when cloaked in the guise of harmless banter.

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The day’s final keynote speaker Dr. David Goldblatt, author and sociologist, raised the question of ‘Racism and Football – the beautiful game?’ David, in his own inimitable way, drew together strands of popular sport, from the Olympics to the antics of the FA, as a way of showing that racism, nationalism, and masculinity are not by-products but the core ingredients of this entire culture. Coming close to the graveyard shift of the conference proceedings, the acclaimed author kept us awake with his call for more radical solutions on the part of the authorities and for us, as fans and individuals, to play our role too in challenging prejudice whenever we encounter it in any form at football matches. Citing real examples from his own experience of watching matches, he showed how the best solution to aggressive ‘banter’ or chanting can sometimes be confrontation with those very prejudices.

Rather than shying away from outbursts of homophobia, racism, misogyny, and sectarianism we need to stand up and be counted. Significantly, on a day when everything was choreographed and synthesised so precisely, the next speaker – Dr. James Carr from the University of Limerick – offered another solution to tackling prejudice through football. James presented a case study entitled ‘Diverse City’, which was about the establishment of a Muslim girls’ football team in Dublin, and which gives this article its name. Dublin, of course, has traditionally been more homogenous as a city than Glasgow but this tale of modern diversity very much captured a closing sense of what the whole day was about.

This conference was one that brought together diverse strands of opinion and contexts around the common theme of football and education. It was about inspiring people to think outside of the box, and raise issues that we sometimes hide away in dark corners – opening up places such as the dressing room, or football supporters’ forums to be shared and dissected in public discussion. And at the end of it all, I had the misfortune of being the second last man on the podium on a long afternoon of so many great speakers, female and male, – feeling a bit like Joe Fagan of Liverpool in the 1980s following in the footsteps of Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly.

My talk was about ‘foreign’ owners of English football clubs and how their being ‘foreign’ is of secondary consequence to their being proponents of a neoliberal business model. All too often these owners, as in the case of Charlton Athletic, are compared to left wing dictatorships when everything that they do bears the hallmarks of a right wing economic model popularised in the 1980s. Football supporters then often fail to make the connection between the privatisation of their clubs and the same privatisation of our NHS, our primary schools, our universities, and various other parts of our public services and welfare state.

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Blindly we have fallen into the trap of disconnecting one issue from the other and downplaying the politics of the situation, which is exactly what the neoliberal agenda seeks to have us do. And at 4.30pm in the afternoon that’s a heavy way to close any conference, so I was glad for my audience that we had a more upbeat session to finish the day, before the ‘Accies’ travelled across the road to the pub. Alan White of United Glasgow Football Club closed the day’s events with a talk on how this team had welcomed players from over 50 nationalities into the community and onto the football pitch. Alan’s talk provided a timely reminder of people’s inherent humility and humanity on a day when Gary Lineker was in the news for daring to suggest that young migrants might be human beings deserving of mercy.

That was a fitting way to close a great day’s discussion. Nearby Hamilton might still be the more famous Academics when we think of Scotland but conferences such as this can play a major part in moving the debate about football’s prejudice away from a singular focus upon supporters and into the broader social context. It was a wonderful way to spend a day in that “place of great contrasts; beauty and ugliness; charm and violence; passion and apathy.” And to cap it all off, I went to Albion Rovers the next day to see a fixture against Peterhead, to experience Scotland’s beautiful game live in the flesh. That too showed me that there are far more layers to Scottish football than what we’re often shown on the surface.

As Archie MacPherson suggested in his keynote speech, if there’s one thing that he wanted to achieve and that all the speakers achieved in different ways on the day, it should be to give people a new way of looking at familiar things. With this in mind, I’ll be digging into Issue 14 of The Football Pink with an academic eye!

 

Follow Paul Breen on Twitter @CharltonMen

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