By Luke Campbell
● “We’re ashamed. We are embarrassed that our name was in [the message], that they tried to attach it to our club – it doesn’t belong anywhere near our club.” – Ben Mee (Burnley F.C. Captain)
On Monday night, some fans of the English Premier League side Burnley Football Club had the spare cash to hire a wee plane carrying an ‘’White Lives Matter Burnley’ banner to fly over Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium (one particular supporter has taken credit). This brief contribution is not intended to restate the purpose, premise, and justification for the Black Lives Matter Movement – that argument is clear, has been articulated by many others, and if folk continue to argue otherwise then it’s no longer a case of ‘I don’t get it’ and cannot be feigned as such – rather, the purpose is simply to emphasise that football is and always has been political.Looking back over the last few years, down in England alone, when the Stoke City chairman advised that Brexit would harm the club’s prospects, supporters told him to focus on the football and stay out of politics. This month we’ve seen Marcus Rashford – a black man from a working class estate in Greater Manchester – partnering with anti-food waste charity FareShare to address food poverty in the absence of free school meals, lobbying the Conservative-led U.K. Government to solve an issue of state neglect.
Once again, many folk saw an opportunity to capitalise on what they somehow positioned as a chance to stick a dig on a player from a rival club with his race, possible political affiliation, and Rashford’s intelligence all targets for online vitriol. Rather than recognising the contribution a young man with a major public platform had taken in forcing attention on children suffering in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, many individuals consciously or ignorantly missed the core purpose of his actions. Others littered comment threads with individual cases of acts of violence, generally committed by individuals from minority ethnic, migrant, or refugee backgrounds who were either caught and held accountable (to some degree) or killed – demanding answers over why there were no public demonstration and questioning why ‘White Lives Matter’ didn’t adorn the back of players’ shirts. These responses tend to fail to recognise the distinction between systemic issues and individual acts.
Such comments aren’t new. Every time a current or ex- football player, manager, bureaucrat, or supporter group comment publicly on ‘political issues’, fans take to Facebook, Twitter, or the like to mask their dissent or objection to the message or issue with comments akin to ‘keep politics out of football’. If we ignore the racist or homophobic chants heard week-in-week-out in stadiums the world over, immigration and work permit issues, ‘dark’ or oil money flooding clubs boasting a global appeal, awarding international competitions to states with horrendous records of human rights abuses, bananas being thrown on the pitch, sexist comments from fans and commentators alike, Islamophobia, national anthems blasting before international fixtures, banning women from attending live matches, the stereotypical descriptions of strong black players as ‘a beast’, military or police teams fielded in domestic leagues, constant hyper-sexualisation and objectification of many of the world most talented female athletes. suicides and poor mental health due to sustained abuse, pricing working class fans out of ‘their’ stadiums, independence campaigns, fascist salutes from players, and left or right wing supporter associations, then perhaps they’re correct?
There’s only so long clubs can ignore these bodies within their supporter bases or proclaim that “we’re not that kind of club” when there is a distinct presence, no matter how small. Like it or not, these fans are as much a part of that ‘12th man’ fans are supposed to represent in men’s football as the ‘apolitical’ paying customers. The clubs, players, and supporter groups have to finally take a zero tolerance attitude to this kind of shite. Folk in all manner of privileged or well-paid posts in Scottish football and beyond who’ve been public or got caught with their sectarianism, racism, and Antisemitism have, after a brief period out of the spotlight, been permitted to return to some of the most significant posts with little or no accountability because for many it simply doesn’t matter. There are no serious consequences. This can’t keep up.
● “Fucking Jessie!” for pulling out of a leg-breaking and thus career threatening challenge… (Scottish Cup Replay against Hibs; “Bloody poofter!” when the full-back fails to clear their lines… (Play-off Second-leg against St. Mirren); and a slew of anti-Traveller and other racist comments that don’t bear repeating here.
In my own life as a football supporter I witness homophobic comments, racisms of all kinds, and sexist pish on Dundee United, Bolton Wanderers, & Olympique de Marseille forums on a regular basis. Chants or comments individually or collectively within the stadium echo these remarks during live games. Down in London folk still don West Ham United or Millwall Football Club shirts when they want a scrap; fascistic thugs at the weekend were wearing Rangers F.C. tops in George Square (Glasgow) during an anti-racism demonstration after which a shockingly naive statement from The Scottish Police Federation reading: ‘There is no moral high ground to be claimed. Right or left; green or blue; unionist or nationalist, statue wrecker or statue protector, your side is as guilty as the other’. Regardless of the stupidity relayed by such commentary, whether they accept it or not, the clubs are drawn into this be that through their own history or by the actions of their supporters (however many or few). Clubs are social and political entities with huge public reach. Time to act as such.
In anticipation of the 2020/21 football season, I’ve bought my first season ticket in many years. When I moved from Dundee to Edinburgh in 2012, I missed live football so much I attended Hibs games at Easter Road, nipped along to Tynecastle for the odd Hearts match, took advantage of student discounts for lower or non-league matches at Meadowbank Stadium or Ainslie Park to watch Edinburgh City and Spartans F.C., respectively – often listening to Dundee United’s incredibly biased commentary via our own app. Yet my passion for the live game died down pretty quickly when I began listening to those around me. I was undertaking a deeply political education through a community-based degree programme and rapidly coming to refine my understanding of Scottish politics in the build up to the independence referendum of September 2014. Through programme placements and campaign works, my late teenage mind started to get to grips with queer politics and ableism, to better recognise racisms and sexist behaviours (both in myself and others). Some fans may continue to proclaim it, but politics is never far from the stands.
Inside and out of the stadiums, those of us with an explicit desire to address their own internalised and projected biases must understand the need to proactively challenge broader issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and the like within the communities we associate ourselves with. The artist, activist, and scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2020) pushes us to realise that even ‘[w]hen conflicts we thought we resolved show up again […] there is no way to beyond but through’, thus, despite any illusion of a post-racial society in Scotland or beyond, there are trigger points when an issue or specifically a systemic oppression penetrates the public conscious – even those we claimed to have dealt with. George Floyd’s murder as the result of police brutality appears to be one such moment that for whatever reason has resonated in a manner the deaths or so many women, men, and others have not. The divisions that have manifested since are unlikely to go away from public debate, nor should we permit them to do so. When football returns in a manner that allows fans to enter stadiums en masse, it’s going to be down to each of us to force these issues.
Personally, whilst I have my season ticket for Tannadice next term, I almost hope the majority of the games will be on T.V. due to the lockdown. I love the sport, or at least I think I still do but fan culture feels far removed. Just as I’d rather watch a film at home where I can smoke rather than on the big screen at the pictures; right now I think I’d rather enjoy football on a live stream without the crowd… But when that changes, please be ready. Until then, condemn and challenge what you witness online, reflect upon your own actions, and try to ensure we don’t allow what I truly hope is a minority of football fans to control the narrative, because regardless of your definition of ‘true fans’, these folk are supporters of our clubs. We are collectively responsible for the role that sport takes in this struggle.
Dear reader, I’ve tried writing a version of this essay multiple times… For months, I wanted (or rather hoped) it to gain me some credit within the academy – perhaps be my ‘first big publication’ but the Covid-19 period has left me more disillusioned with universities than ever before. Six month waiting periods only to have two reviewers offer polar opposite commentaries, suggestions that emotional intelligence ‘doesn’t meet academic convention’, or claims that personal experiences cannot authentically resonate with others.
Today though, I realised that I don’t care (or I’m trying not to). It’s to my shame that I took time to arrive at this conclusion, but my time working with editors at Lumpen and Bella Caledonia have shown me what a meaningful and mentored writing experience can be like. Thank you for your patience whilst I try to strike my own balance.
In love and solidarity, Luke x