Homophobia in football
Open letter to the Chair of the FA
31st January 2020
Mr Greg Clarke
The Football Association
Dear Mr Clarke,
On behalf of Village Manchester Football Club, I wish to raise urgent issues regarding the discipline procedures of the Football Association.
It is one of the FA’s primary roles to look after its players, including at the grassroots level. We believe that the discipline procedures in place to tackle discrimination are not fit for purpose and that the FA is failing in its duty of care.
The FA has stated it has zero tolerance towards discrimination; we contend that your discipline procedures are having zero effect.
On Sunday 19th January Village Manchester FC released a Statement on Homophobia in Grassroots Football, reported on by national media. We believe, based on our own direct experience, that homophobic abuse in grassroots football is on the rise, and that part of the problem is that the FA procedure for dealing with it is neither swift nor strong enough. Our Statement gave a number of examples of flaws in the existing anti-discrimination procedures, and positive suggestions for improving them. It was widely shared online by individuals, organisations and other grassroots football clubs who share our frustrations and concerns. It received the support of Catherine West MP: “Fully support @villagemancfc call for stricter discrimination discipline procedures. As I've said before, there is no place for any form of bigotry in the beautiful game."
Nearly two weeks on, it is disappointing to note that the FA has not yet seen fit to even acknowledge our Statement. Some might say that the silence of the FA so far has been deafening. We at Village Manchester FC invite you to comment on our Statement, and have enclosed a copy. We would be delighted to work together with the FA to improve its anti-discrimination procedure in order that we, and all other grassroots players, can feel safe playing the game that we love. Based on the events of the season so far, we cannot say that our players currently feel the FA is protecting us from abuse.
Our First Team was recently subjected to overly aggressive behaviour and homophobia from our opponents and their supporters. We reported this to the FA and made the opposition’s Club Committee aware. The Club Committee were horrified, convened an urgent Committee meeting, and five days later suspended their team from playing, effective immediately, telling the players they had to attend diversity training if they wished to remain with the club. This is a fantastic response, and for a voluntary group to be able to react so swiftly when the FA do not is a telling indictment of the FA process.
Further to this, when the Club Committee told their First Team Secretary to inform the league the team was suspended, this message was not passed on. Instead, the team disregarded this instruction, arranged a new venue, and the game which was not supposed to be played went ahead. This shows a lack of respect for their own Committee, but more importantly a lack of fear of possible FA sanctions; abusive players simply do not care about the FA’s current processes or punishments.
If the Club Committee can convene its voluntary members in five days and decide that the accusations and the evidence are so compelling that their own team should be suspended, why can’t the FA, with its full-time employees, do likewise? If the FA itself had looked at the allegations and acted swiftly to suspend the club, or the relevant players, pending further investigation, this flagrant contempt for the wishes of the Club Committee and the feelings of our players who were abused on the pitch would not have been possible. Given the referee confirmed he had heard homophobic abuse, zero tolerance would have been to suspend the team.
Earlier in the season we submitted another report about aggressive behaviour and homophobia at one of our Reserve team matches. It was not until 92 days after submitting this report that we were contacted to arrange a date for a tribunal. One of our teams was scheduled to play the team in question again on the 2nd February, until we requested that the fixture be postponed. To play that match would be deeply inappropriate, but because the FA process has allowed half a season to pass since we submitted our report, that is the position we were in.
The hearing needs to be heard by 21st February, four months after the game. How can you expect players to remember precise details pertaining to the match four months after the event? If all that the players attending a tribunal are able to do is quote from their own testimony as set down and submitted three days after the match, why couldn’t the tribunal have already taken place? What if the players who reported abuse had stopped playing in the last three months because they didn’t feel safe? What has the delay achieved other than to leave us convinced that the FA process is in no way efficient or effective?
On Saturday 25th January, the Buzzfeed website published a report on referee Dr Jolyon Dales giving up on football after 14 years: “A Football Referee Spent A Year Fighting With The FA Over Its Handling Of Alleged Homophobic Abuse And Has Now Quit.” This damning article explains his reason for leaving the sport was not the homophobic abuse, but the FA’s poor handling of the complaints process. People are giving up on football because of the FA.
We are sharing these examples to emphasise that the existing procedures for dealing with discrimination cases are not fit for purpose. We welcome the new Tell Us, We’ll Tackle It campaign to make it easier to report discrimination at grassroots level, but making it easier to report is meaningless when the process itself hasn’t changed. In the new campaign, the FA claims to have ‘zero tolerance’ towards discrimination, but currently allows itself up to 180 days to deal with a complaint. In that time the players in question continue to play, and the season might be over before the FA takes any further action. This does not feel like zero tolerance: rather, it feels like discrimination at grass roots level isn’t being taken seriously.
We support your new campaign, as we also support Rainbow Laces and Football Versus Homophobia Month. These campaigns help to educate many leagues, clubs and players as to the widespread nature of discrimination and the effect it has on individual players. However, they often educate people who are open to being educated; they are not backed up with a strong, fast, effective discipline procedure that, quite frankly, puts the fear of the FA into players before they think to abuse.
To make us feel safe on the pitch, the FA needs to commit resources to drastically improve its reaction to discrimination. If a voluntary organisation can react within five days, the FA should be able to fully investigate a case within a month. The FA should exercise power to suspend players pending investigation, and the sanctions for discriminatory behaviour should be stronger. To put this into context, we are not talking about handing out yellow cards for dodgy tackles - homophobic abuse is a hate crime under English law. A supposedly suspended team demonstrated last weekend that the existing FA discrimination procedures and sanctions are not causing the slightest bit of concern to people who commit hate crimes. The FA may call its procedures ‘zero tolerance’, but they are having zero effect.
February is Football Versus Homophobia Month and would be an excellent time to instigate positive changes to improve the procedures.
I would like to close with a question for you. If a Football Association employee, working in your headquarters, came to you and said “I am being subjected to homophobic abuse while doing my job”, how quickly would you deal with that? Are they expected to wait for up to 180 days while you consider the complaint, whilst potentially having to work alongside their abuser? It doesn't need 180 days to realise that the FA isn't taking a complaint seriously. It doesn't need 180 days to decide to stop playing football because you don't feel protected on the pitch.
The FA is the only arbiter in English football. We are telling you your discrimination process needs to change. Will you tackle that?
Village Manchester Football Club
Statement on homophobia in the 2019/20 season so far
Village Manchester Football Club Committee
19 January 2020
Village Manchester Football Club has for 24 years provided a safe, welcoming space for people to play and support football regardless of sexuality. Originally formed to support gay and bi men, we are now one of Manchester’s most diverse clubs with people of different sexual orientations, ages, ethnicities and nationalities, including an increasing number of straight players attracted by our club ethos. Our primary aims are equality of opportunity and the safety of our players.
We are now a little over half way through the current season and VMFC has had to submit formal complaints about homophobic abuse and intimidation, directed to our players, from three separate clubs and involving at least two dozen opposition players and supporters. In addition, there have been other incidents where VMFC players have been subjected to abuse and have chosen not to put forward a complaint; sometimes this is due to fear of reprisal, and sometimes due to the process.
There were at least half a dozen homophobic abuse incidents in the 2018/19 season directed to Village Manchester players; this was a significant increase on previous years and mirrors the increase in homophobic abuse reported in society generally.
In early January 2020 members of the VMFC Committee met with the Chief Executive Officer of Manchester County FA to voice our concerns over this increase in abuse. Manchester FA has taken on board our concerns, will be forwarding them to the national FA, and we continue to work with Manchester FA to improve the situation. However, since the meeting there has been a more serious case of homophobic abuse and intimidation, and Village Manchester Football Club now calls on the FA to declare that Enough is Enough.
It is our contention that one of the reasons for the increase in discrimination cases is that the FA procedure for dealing with discrimination cases is not fit for purpose. We call on the FA to radically overhaul its procedures:
Currently, the FA has 180 days to bring a discrimination case to completion. This six month period is unacceptable and can easily last until after the season has ended. The FA should commit sufficient resources to dramatically reduce that time period to one month.
Zero tolerance: currently, an accused player may carry on playing during the investigation, which as stated could be the remainder of the season, and potentially against their accuser. Where the referee corroborates the accusation, the accused should be suspended. Where not suspended, an accused player should not be allowed to play against their accuser.
Current sanctions of small fines and a ban for a few matches are insufficient and are not acting as a deterrent. Fines and bans need increasing, and diversity training should be mandatory.
Referees need further training and support and must act immediately if they hear abuse or it is reported to them. Selective deafness must end.
All clubs and players must know of potential outcomes of discriminatory actions.
The use of offensive language or harassment towards a person because of who they are is a crime, which may lead to a criminal record. The FA should act to ensure that all clubs and leagues highlight this fact to all players. Village Manchester Football Club is currently in discussion with Greater Manchester Police with regards to reporting all future cases of homophobic abuse as hate crimes.
We believe that a much shorter case period, immediate suspensions, increased sanctions and better communications to clubs and players will help to deter discriminatory actions and, in doing so, assist in educating all players that discriminatory language and harassment is not acceptable.
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