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Should We Jail Racist Football Fans?


The following has been edited and abbreviated for text. For more details and information, along with musical scoring and news clips, listen to the Football Today episode below.


This weekend racism in football was making headlines again after FC Porto's Moussa Marega left their game against Vitoria FC because he said he was racially abused. In response Portugal's President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, said when condemning the attack, “Portugal’s Constitution very clearly condemns racism, as well as any other forms of xenophobia and discrimination,” he said.


But racism from fans isn't isolated to Portugal, it's prevalent here in England as well. According to Home Office minister Susan Williams, there were 152 cases of racism up from 98 incidents from the 2017-2018.


Previously, there had been a decline in racially charged non-violent abuse: there was 99 during the 2013-14 season, then 78 in 2014-15, and 68 in 2015-16.


The case of George Reynolds is one of those. He was judged to have made racist comments at Brighton's 3-0 home win against Tottenham on October 5th. According to The Argus, he called, black Tottenham Hotspur players “monkey boys” and abused Son Heung-Min by saying “Koreans eat dogs”. In an unprecedented move, on February 3rd, Reynolds was sentenced to two months in prison. He is the first fan to be sentenced to prison for an in-game racism offense.

We spoke to Paul Barber, Chief Executive and Deputy Chairman of Brighton and Hove Albion, about if criminal prosecution is an effective tool to combating racism.


In January, The Athletic reported that there had been nine hate crimes at the Amex stadium this season. Is that still the case, Paul?


We have a very strict zero tolerance policy to any kind of hate crime at the Amex. So what we're seeing and have seen over the last couple of years is an increase in the reporting of those sort of issues, which is positive. But of course, it does also then have an exaggerated effect on the numbers because it's possible that some of these issues were occurring previously, but not necessarily being reported. So the positive thing now is people feel confident enough to report such incidents. We've got the processes in place and the staff in place to be able to deal with them very proactively. And that's what we've been doing over the last two seasons here.


So do you think it's More incidents of racism or homophobia, or do you think it's just more reporting of those incidents?


It's really hard to tell. I mean, my gut instinct is that unfortunately, the environment in this country over the last couple of years is political rhetoric has been quite divisive. I think it does seem to given the very tiny minority of people some kind of license to behave in a way that is discriminatory towards other people. Having said that, I think the confidence that people now have in terms of reporting these incidents both to our confidential text line which enables them to do so very discreetly, or just simply asking a crowd safety, steward for help, then both of those things have actually accelerated the number of reports that we get so it's difficult to tell whether it's a genuine increase or or whether it's a combination of those factors.


You said that the club has a zero tolerance policy, you know, what are you doing to combat racism, homophobia and other discrimination?


We've always said that in order to overcome these issues, first of all, we need to recognize that they're an issue for society, not just for football clubs. You know, people don't walk into a football stadium and become a racist, they are racist before they enter the stadium.

So we need to recognize that we've got an education issue within our country and within society as a whole.


Then we need to make sure that when there are issues, we deal with them very, very proactively and positively. That means that the sanctions, the punishments for behaving in this way, are very serious, and people need to understand that there is a deterrent out there, which means that their opportunity to watch their favorite football team play will be taken away if they behave in this way and it could even lead to a criminal conviction. It could even lead to a custodial sentence where someone is in prison for this type of behavior and we've been calling for some time now that education isn't enough. There needs to be stronger sanctions for people when they commit these offenses. And in the last few weeks, we have started to see that the courts have been taking these issues very seriously, and have started to hand down very serious sanctions to those that get involved.


Previously, you said, "looking forward, I hope that Reynolds' conviction is a watershed moment, at least for our club." Can you explain what you meant by that statement?


Yeah, I hope that finally, we've got a sentence here from a court that says to people that this type of behavior is totally unacceptable. And it won't just lead to a denial of your opportunity to watch football or a fine or a ban, it's actually going to lead to your liberty being taken away period.

Maybe just maybe that kind of sentencing, that kind of message, might just get through to the majority of people that perhaps teeter on the edge of behaving in this way.

Those that are quite extreme in their views and their behavior, perhaps it won't have any affect at all or if it does, that's great. But but for the vast majority of people, we feel that that kind of sense of thing, that kind of message may just act as a deterrent that we've been looking for that then combined with education, that then starts to see an eradication of this type of behavior from our game, but more importantly, or as importantly, from society as a whole. Then we can start to move forward and hopefully, be kinder to people be kinder to each other, which is good for our game and good for our society.


It sounds like you believe that fans should be receiving prison time for these acts, much like George Reynolds will be...


Well, again, I it's not for me to determine what the law is or how the courts punish but what I do know is that everything that we can do in our football club is being done. So we're encouraging people to report this behavior. When they report it, we're then identifying the individuals, rejecting the individuals and then we're handing them over to the authority. At that point, we can do no more, as a sport, as a football club, we can do no more than that.


What we then don't want to see is no action taken against these individuals, because all that happens is they then come back to our sport and they continue to behave in a way that everyone else find so offensive. So from that point of view, what we've been asking for is support from the authorities in doing their jobs in the way that we're doing our jobs, which is as effectively as possible, and then hopefully, we can prevent these individuals from coming into football stadiums and hopefully, over time, they will become rehabilitated and learn from their mistakes and this issue then starts to fade into the distant past and we don't have this problem again.


Unfortunately, what we've seen is education is not enough, there does need to be deterrent and punishment as well. And it's a combination of all these factors that I think will move us along and away from this issue.


Why are you so passionate about this cause in particular?


Because I think we're sick and tired of our sport being tarnished by a very, very small minority of individuals who wish to behave in this particular way. We have a huge number of people who watch our games every season, they want to come to the stadium in a safe and friendly environment, they want to be able to support their team, they want to enjoy the sport, they want a mix of family and friends... what they don't want, is to suffer any kind of discrimination in whatever way or shape or form that comes. It's our responsibility- you know, we're in the entertainment business, we're at the top end of professional sports, we want those people to come to our stadium and feel safe and feel that they can enjoy themselves without having to put up with that kind of behavior.


So we just simply don't want it in our stadiums and we will do whatever we can to make sure that it doesn't come back to our stadium in any way, shape, or form.

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