Sport can really unite and divide people in equal measure.  But where the world of football is concerned, we aren’t just referring to the beautiful game itself, and the pursuit of glory for one’s team. Sadly, ‘diversity’ is not a word you would necessarily associate with football, and for many fans, players and employees, the sport has a very ugly and sinister side to it.

Yes, it arguably brings nations together in universal cheer (and frustration) at international competition level. Yes, as a spectator, you will see different races and nationality of player donning the same shirt. Yes, football patter transcends generations and socio-economic rifts. But the football industry is behind the times when it comes to diversity. The infamous Chelsea fans’ racist rant on the Paris Metro springs to mind, as does the intense racism at the tainted Euro 2012 competition, closely followed by the 2014 World Cup Championship after which FIFA was heavily criticised for failing to address dozens of racist and homophobic incidents.

But it seems that racism is not the only form of discrimination in football. A survey revealed that two thirds of women working in football have experienced sexism in the workplace, and most concerning, that discrimination and assault were so commonplace that women were unable to report every incident that occurred. Sexism is viewed as a more casual discrimination; think along the lines of Trump-style ‘locker room banter’ used to excuse outright discrimination. Numerous gaffes have been made very publically by leading pundits and club managers. Who could forget Mourinho’s pitch-side torrent of verbal abuse directed at his first team doctor as she entered the pitch to treat an injured player? Apparently, in fulfilling her duties within the rules and regulations of the game, she was being ‘impulsive and naïve’. As if this weren’t insulting and patronising enough, Mourinho then went on to call her ‘the daughter of a whore’.

To add insult to injury, not only are women likely to face discrimination and possible sexual assault in the footballing world, they will also be paid considerably less than their male counterparts. At professional level the pay gap (read chasm) is laughable. £80K is the ceiling for women in the Premier League; not a bad salary, really, but its pocket money in comparison to men in the same league.

And if you think that women get a bad run in the football industry, spare a thought for gay men: there are currently only a small handful of openly gay players in any major European football leagues. Of course, this is statistically improbable to say the least but most gay players prefer to retire before making any nod towards their sexuality. And on the one hand, why should they? Is it really important whether someone is gay or straight? Isn’t it about the game, their talent, their skill level, their match performance, rather than their sexual preferences? Well yes it is on a personal level but it also points to such deep-seated homophobia in football that coming out is a potentially career threatening move. Justin Fashanu was the first professional footballer ever to come out in 1990 and later committed suicide. This is not an issue unique to football: former Welsh Rugby Union Captain, Gareth Thomas talks of being close to suicide as he wrestled with his sexuality, finally coming out to his wife and subsequently his team mates.

What about those who can’t even get into the grounds to see the games? Across the UK, less than a third of football league clubs meet the government’s recommendations for wheelchair spectator provision. Justin Tomlinson MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Disabled People, until the most recent government re-shuffle) has branded the current provision “disgraceful” as many disabled fans are split up from their able-bodied companions and forced to sit with the away fans (i).

Under the Government’s Accessible Stadia Guide, newly constructed stadia are given strict guidelines on the location, quantity and quality of disabled facilities required. Existing grounds are required to make reasonable adjustments for accessing facilities. There has been some progress with 87% of clubs now employing dedicated staff to assist disabled fans and 97% of clubs provide accessible parking or drop off points (ii). All Premier League clubs have committed to improving access for disabled supporters by August 2017 but that doesn’t mean that all the accessibility issues will be solved.

If clubs don’t take a more inclusive approach, they are surely playing a losing game. Social media can take the slightest PR blunder around the world in seconds. There are other real consequences of failing to take diversity seriously, principally loss of revenue in the form of mega sponsorship deals. This is not forgetting that The Equality Act applies equally to football clubs, players, managers and staff as it does to every other industry and clubs who fall foul of the law may find themselves facing hefty fines and more bad press.

As the footballing world gears up for the 2018 World Cup, FIFA has launched an anti-discrimination monitoring system. There are also several campaign groups working to stop racism in sport such as Show Racism the Red Card which runs anti-racism workshops in schools and Kick it Out which aims to be the voice of ethical football. Indeed, anti-racism movements seem to have made the greatest progress in ousting discrimination from the football industry. And yet sometimes, it still seems that we’re only an inappropriate football chant away from stepping back 30 years.

The success of the women’s football team and subsequent spike in interest in women’s football has made some in-roads into wearing down old stereotypes and sentiments. However, it’s far from a fair deal, in terms of pay and facilities for players, and the majority of women who work in the industry are still subject to deep-rooted sexism.

The total lack of representation for the gay community in football is most concerning. Professional sportspeople are contemplating suicide rather than coming out. The personal struggles that evolve due to homophobia are both saddening and frightening, even more so if we consider the spotlight that is given to sport stars and their position as role models, particularly to younger people.

Football clubs are powerhouse brands and need to take responsibility for the influence they have on society at large. By accepting discrimination within the game, clubs are allowing it and therefore normalising it for everyday life. But fans don’t get off that easily. Everyone has a choice. Sing along with that racist song or make the guy who started it look like a plonker? Often it’s easier said than done but what matters is that fans and players see that there is a choice, that there is a ‘right’ path and they will receive support along the way. Promoting diversity isn’t an overnight action plan, it takes time to embed, to sink in at grass roots level. After all, we’ve come a long way since the eighties, haven’t we?

(i) BBC Sports News 14 September 2015
(ii) BBC News 7 March 2016

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