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Module 3: Racism in Sport - are we doing enough? In partnership with Women in Football

Posted on 4 April 2022

During this live event, trainee solicitor Bethia Green was joined by football industry experts Sanjay Bhandari (Chair - Kick It Out), Lungi Macebo (Chief Operating Officer - Birmingham City FC), Michael Frost (Managing Associate, Reputation Protection - Mishcon de Reya) and Joe Ansbro (former Scottish international professional rugby union player). The panel discussed the practical, legal and political measures taken by players, clubs, politicians, law enforcement, charities and others to stamp out racism in sport.

Sports Law Academy 21/22
Module 3: Racism in Sport
Are we doing enough (in partnership with Women in Football)

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Welcome everybody.  It’s wonderful to see so many friends, colleagues and clients among us and thank you to those of you who have joined online.  To quickly introduce myself, my name is Bethia and I’m currently a Trainee Solicitor at Mishcon.  In today’s session we will explore the practical, legal and political measures taken by players, clubs, politicians, law enforcement, charities and others to stamp out racism from sport and ask are these measures effective and what else needs to be done?  To introduce tonight’s speakers, we are fortunate enough to have an amazing array.  We have Sanjay Bhandari, the current Chair of organisation, Kick It Out, Lungi Macebo, the COO of Birmingham City FC, Joe Ansbro, former Scottish international rugby union player and our very own Managing Associate in Reputation Protection at Mishcon, Michael Frost.  We all know that racism has existed within sports for decades, however, in recent years the patterns of racial abuse being recorded have shifted with significant increases seen in instances of online racism directed through social media.  There has been a significant increase in online racial abuse, especially in football.  Can you give an overview of the issue as it relates to football and explain why you feel we are struggling to effectively penalise such repulsive behaviour?

Michael Frost, Managing Associate, Reputation Protection, Mishcon de Reya
Well, the proliferation of online abuse is made easier by online technologies, to state the obvious, we’ve got mobile phones, computers and obviously social media platforms.  There’s been a lot of academic research and commentary around the devastating effects of what is known as the disinhibition effect.  Now this is the lack of restraint that one feels when communicating online in comparison to communicating in person.  The protective veil of anonymity emboldens users to abuse the knowledge they won’t be identified.  There has always also been a targeting of high profile individuals and premier league footballers and this has only intensified in Covid-19.  Online racial abuse is on the rise and not more exemplified by the target abuse of those three English players after the Euro 2020 final and that in itself has driven a public desire as well as the political desire for change.  The difficulty however is that the law as it stands finds it very difficult to tackle online racist abuse and those laws largely predate the social media age.  Now because these communications offences have not kept pace with the rise of smart phones and social media, some say they are not fit for purpose as they sometimes under criminalise and other times over criminalise but I do think that change is afoot in the world of football.  On the 15 July 2021, four days after the Euro 2020 final, Boris Johnson set out an action plan to tackle online racist abuse in football following the social media attacks on the three English players. 

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Could you give us a brief overview of the current legal avenues in place to tackle racist abuse?

Michael Frost, Managing Associate, Reputation Protection, Mishcon de Reya
So the starting point is that there is a patchwork of offline criminal offences aimed at tackling racist abuse so, taking football as an example, there is a longstanding legislation which makes it a criminal offence to under Public Order Act 1986 use abusive, insulting or threatening words, behaviour that intends to or causes another person alarm, harm or distress and the Court can also make Banning Orders so under the Football Spectators Act 1989, racist or indecent chanting at football matches can result in a football Banning Order from the stadium and as mentioned, that has been extended to include online abuse, that’s part of Boris’ stated plan after the Euro finals.  But in terms of online, there is specific legislation that criminalises online behaviour but as mentioned these generally pre-date the rise of social media.  Those offensive online communications have not deemed to be fit for purpose and the Government recently asked the Law Commission to look to review them.  In terms of what can an individual victim do on their own accord when they’ve received racist, they are victims of racial abuse?  They could go after the social media platforms, generally speaking they may ban or suspend a user but often there’ll be little more.  There’s also an enormous issue around anonymous abuse where anonymous users are shut down, oftentimes they rise like phoenix from the flames under a different username and it’s very stressful and time consuming to take that type of civil action. 

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Could you tell us a little bit more about the Bill and some of the ways that it will potentially offer protection to individuals who have been the victims of racial abuse online.

Michael Frost, Managing Associate, Reputation Protection, Mishcon de Reya
It’s an enormous piece of legislation but in its essence, it tries to seek systematic change by placing a duty of care on internet companies which host user generated content such as social media companies and video sharing platforms to proactively moderate harmful content.  This priority legal content was initially reserved for a narrow type of content, including content relating to terrorism, content relating to child sex abuse, however, following that joint committee report I referred to in December last year, Nadine Dorries announced extra priority legal conf… offences were to be written onto the face of the bill, which crucially includes hate crime, which should also include racist abuse.  The Bill will be regulated by Ofcom and they can take enforcement action against tech firms which have failed to remove named illegal content. 

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Our next speaker is former Scottish rugby union international, Joe Ansbro.  Could you first tell us a little bit about your background, career journey and what it felt like to be the first Black man to represent Scotland.

Joe Ansbro, Former Scottish rugby union international player
In terms of playing international rugby, for me, it was a dream growing up.  I think I imagine it is for a lot of people, if they love sport.  But alas, I went into professional sport from University not thinking it would ever happen and throughout that entire journey, the colour of my skin rarely came up.  My awareness was quite low in terms of dealing with those conversations and those questions and I found it quite awkward to be honest.

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Did you ever experience racism growing up whilst playing rugby and if you did, how did you handle those and would you handle them differently now?

Joe Ansbro, Former Scottish rugby union international player
Yeah, there were stereotypes perhaps to do with Black players that I would find frustrating at the time and unhelpful and obviously I’d work against that by focussing on my performance and my behaviours to try and prove those people wrong and I found that quite motivating when I was a teenager and then as I moved into adult sport, there were, you know again those things persisted but there were kind of a few rare occasions where there was overt racism and when that occurred, I always felt that it was uncomfortable for the perpetrator, if that makes sense, I always felt like I had the room.  Yeah, in terms of rugby, it’s a very confrontational sport so I feel like if you have issues with people, there are legitimate ways to resolve those without perhaps descending to cheap shots and racism which in many ways there’s a bit of self-regulation there. 

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
What steps do you feel like rugby union has taken to tackle racism and due you hope the appointment of Tom Ilube as the first Black Chairman of England Rugby will help the sport?

Joe Ansbro, Former Scottish rugby union international player
From what I saw, it to me appears like it’s still very much we’re at the data collection stage of trying to figure out and identify the issue to see how widespread it is in all the various levels of rugby, that’s in terms of racism with regard to abuse.  I guess racism can be applied to you know inclusion and opportunity and that’s definitely an area that rugby can improve a lot.  Living in London for the last eight years I’ve seen, certainly London football clubs and their academy set-ups, they have the resources and the facilities to cast that net very widely.  It’s a bit like that in France with the rugby there, it’s very much, it’s more inclusive because of the setup, it’s not based around schools.

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Now to our next guest speaker, Lungi Macebo.  When it comes to racism in sport, given your position, you have a fantastic insight into the challenges that come with tackling racism from within a major club.  Would you please tell us a little bit more about your background career journey and your current role at Birmingham City and women in football.

Lungi Macebo, Chief Operating Officer, Birmingham City FC
I think in terms of the football, I fell into it really and it wasn’t something I was intending on doing just because I didn’t have the knowledge around what actually goes on behind the scenes but my role soon evolved to fit in more and more things in terms of other parts of the club so I really got to know how the operations worked across the club but I also got to know how much of an asset a football club can be within its local community.

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
What have been the most difficult aspects of tackling racism in your role at Birmingham and what are the conversations like that you have as a club about these sorts of issues when they arise?

Lungi Macebo, Chief Operating Officer, Birmingham City FC
We have a zero tolerance policy towards that type of behaviour within the ground and online as well.  What we often find challenging is obviously being able to identify the perpetrators because of the lack of information that’s being passed onto the stewards by supporters who are witnessing that racism taking place there and then.  We’ve also had sporadic incidents in the ground with our supporters allegedly abusing opposition players.  That probably is at the same level as the rest of the industry.  It’s obviously not good enough and in those incidences, we try and report those as best as we can to the authorities with the West Midlands Police, they’ve actually appointed a Hate Crime Officer who we work quite closely with and what we get him to do is come in and deliver some sessions to our boys and girls academies because obviously those people might be affected in the future and actually arming them with the knowledge of what it is that they can do to obviously try and combat that, is really important for us.

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Where there are racist incidents involving fans, where do you think responsibility ultimately lies and how much of that is with the club?

Lungi Macebo, Chief Operating Officer, Birmingham City FC
That responsibility has to lie with the individual first, we cannot take away the individual responsibility from people in terms of their behaviour just because they’re in a large crowd.  When it comes to obviously that group mentality and how they are behaving within a group, it is harder to identify the aggressors in that instance but what clubs have and what clubs need to be investing in, is the infrastructure around CCTV.  There’s an element in certain clubs as well where clubs are… supporter bases, sorry… are able to self-police.  When it’s self-policed, it’s a lot more straightforward to actually root out individual culprits.

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
You are one of a handful of Black women to have held a Board role at an English football club.  How important to do you feel the recruitment of more diverse boards and senior leadership is to tackling racism in the game?

Lungi Macebo, Chief Operating Officer, Birmingham City FC
It’s really, really important.  I think the problem we have currently is the representation on the pitch doesn’t necessarily match what’s going on in terms of those coaching roles or those technical management roles and I think that’s really important.  Being able to quantify that, obviously there’s a lot of football led initiatives that clubs are part of, whether it’s the Football Leadership Diversity Code or the Rooney Rule which was introduced a few years ago, those things are really key in terms of moving the industry forward and I think creating an environment that’s welcoming and open and inclusive, is probably just as important as where we advertise those roles, how we recruit those individuals and making it known that actually the industry is a welcoming place.

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Our last speaker tonight is the Chair of anti-discrimination organisation, Kick It Out, Sanjay Bhandari.  If you had any thoughts or comments on FIFA’s recent decision to suspend the Russian national team, do you welcome the intervention of organisations such as FIFA in these sorts of geopolitical situations?

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair, Kick It Out
We’re a charity, our beneficiaries are underrepresented on minority communities in English football so this doesn’t relate to the work of our charity.  Do I have a personal opinion?  Of course I have a personal opinion and there is, there is I suppose one way in which it relates to the work of Kick It Out, which you kind of touches upon what Lungi just said, which is actually it’s about leadership.  When things really, really matter, do the leaders make the right decisions and I think what FIFA have demonstrated is that they do when cornered like a rat and why this is relevant to race and to discrimination is this, every organisation has values, every organisation has policies and most organisations will be really true to their values when it’s a junior employee that has breached the values.  They will come down like a ton of bricks and say we have a zero tolerance policy and you are out.  As soon as it’s the star trader and money is at stake, the incident is only the starter pistol on the mental gymnastics to try to justify that person’s continued existence inside the organisation.  So, to me, the issue is really about leadership, that’s the bit that the recent decision tells us, which is and as someone involved in the battle against discrimination, can I be confident that our leaders will always make the right decision when really called upon?  No, I can’t always be confident of that.

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Reporting an incident can seem like a slow, bureaucratic process when you’d rather just forget it and move on with your life but how important are reporting statistics in improving our understanding of racism in football?

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair, Kick It Out
So if you looked at the last full season and the last two full seasons, we saw a doubling of homophobic abuse in one year, a doubling of racist abuse in one year… in two years, we’d seen over the course of the last five or six years steady increases, particularly in both racist and homophobic abuse, which correlate with the Home Office’s own hate crime statistics.  Some of that was people coming out of lockdown, you know we’d seen the, you know after the Euros so it was probably an impact, you have to kind of take our stats for that last year with a pinch of salt because it’s not comparable to previous years.  I think the big thing over the last two years has been this massive, exponential increase in online abuse. 

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Are there any ways that Kick It Out are trying to kind of obtain more evidence from… regarding online abuse?

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair, Kick It Out
We have bits of data but actually part of the problem is it’s really fragmented.  We’ll have some data, Lungi will have some data at Birmingham, every club will have some data, the Premier League has some data, the FA has some data, the Police have some data.  It’s not federated, it’s not amalgamated and worse than that, there’s no real insight from it.  It’s like this many incidents of racism, this many incidents of homophobia but that tells you nothing about root cause analysis which enables you to make interventions earlier in the cycle to say, here’s what we ought to be doing or it doesn’t tell you anything about the outcomes but one of the things where people vastly underuse education is actually in dealing with offenders because there’s one thing I can guarantee, you can’t ban your way out of this, you don’t deal with the problem, you just displace it.  You move those fans to a club down the road that probably has fewer resources to deal with them.  You need to understand the nature of the problem that you are dealing with and then prescribe solutions to it.  Part of the challenge when we deal with racism, it’s so emotive, we don’t really want to stay in the problem and really understand it, we just want to prescribe solutions and get it off the desk and think, there I’ve dealt with that.  And actually, more often than not, we haven’t because you haven’t really spent long enough in the problem. 

Bethia Green, Trainee Solicitor, Mishcon de Reya
Thank you.  Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time now for tonight’s session.  I’d like to just thank everybody, all of the guest speakers tonight for sharing their insight and being so honest with us all and for everyone for joining us, both in person and online.  Thank you once more and I hope you all enjoy the rest of your evenings. 

Sports Law Academy 21/22


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