Now what? Doing nothing is not an option

Survey findings suggest strict liability – making clubs accountable for their fans' actions – might be the answer after the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.

By Steven Lawther

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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It was believed that verbal warnings and reprimands would have little impact on the behaviour of fans. The most effective measures were perceived to be exclusion from competitions, deduction of points and banning supporters from the clubs responsible.

The adoption of strict liability into Scottish football has the potential to transform our game and eradicate sectarianism. So why aren’t our clubs willing to try it?

The recent repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was the latest twist in the long-running debate over sectarian and offensive behaviour in Scottish football. Supporters of the Act saw it as a much-needed weapon in the battle to eradicate bigotry from our national sport, whilst opponents believed that the legislation was so hastily put together and so poorly crafted that it created more problems than it solved.

Regardless of which analysis was correct, the Act was consigned to history in a vote in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, March 15. Most observers agree that the problem of sectarianism and offensive behaviour in Scottish football will not magically disappear along with the Act. Fans can still be prosecuted under the Criminal Justice Scotland Act 2003 and other laws, but some have suggested that the abolition of the Act will be interpreted as a ‘green light’ to fans that they can indulge in sectarian or offensive behaviour at games with impunity.

The debate has now shifted on to ‘what now?’ with strict liability having been proposed in some quarters as offering one potential way forward. This sees clubs held directly accountable for their fans’ actions and facing financial and sporting sanctions if they fail to deal with the problem. Fines, partial or full closure of stadiums, playing matches in a neutral stadium, banning supporters from the clubs responsible, deducting points or exclusion from competition can all be deployed in an attempt to create a change in behaviour.

It is a system that operates successfully across world football, including in England, and some Scottish teams already adhere to the principle whilst playing under the guidelines of UEFA in European competition. Yet it remains an approach that Scottish football clubs seem strangely resistant to for our domestic game. The last time the potential for strict liability was discussed at a meeting of all the clubs in Scotland, there was strong opposition. The argument went that clubs should not be punished for something over which they have no control.

Pressure to consider strict liability remains, however, with a bill in the Scottish Parliament to force clubs to adopt strict liability lodged by MSP James Dornan currently working its way through the parliamentary legislative process.

As is frequently the case in Scottish football, the voice of supporters has been somewhat missing from this debate and as a result my company Red Circle Communications were asked by Nil by Mouth, one of Scotland’s leading anti-sectarianism charities, to provide some hard data on what fans think around this issue. As there tends to be a lot of baggage that comes with discussing sectarianism in Scottish football, my priority was to ensure that the survey approach was fair, neutral and not open to undue influence from any quarter.

The survey design followed standard market research practice with a particular emphasis on giving fans the chance to agree or disagree with anything tested within it. This included the core themes of whether they believed sectarianism to be a problem in Scottish football and whether or not they supported the introduction of strict liability.

In the end we received responses from 4,395 people representative of fans from all levels of the Scottish game, including all four SPFL leagues and non-league clubs. The distribution of responses broadly reflected attendance levels within the game with 83% of respondents supporting a team in the Scottish Premiership, with supporters of the two largest clubs, Rangers and Celtic, making up around two-thirds of that figure.

This was a fantastic response which would not only provide us with a robust overall sample, but also allow us to explore any difference of opinion amongst fans of different clubs and at different levels within the game. The results would prove fascinating.

The first clear finding was that the majority of fans had had experience of sectarian language at matches. 62% of supporters had experienced sectarian language at a match, a disturbing statistic on any analysis. This means that almost two out of every three supporters who go along to watch football in Scotland have been exposed at some point to sectarian language or sectarian chanting during the 90 minutes.

We were however keen to not make assumptions about whether this was necessarily a problem for supporters. Some may see it as either part and parcel of football or of little importance, so we specifically asked whether they thought that sectarian language/chanting at Scottish football matches was a problem. Most did. 58% of Scottish Premiership supporters believed that it was a problem that needed addressed and this number rose to 72% of those who supported Championship clubs. There is clear discontent at the current situation.

This discontent continued when we explored the current approach to tackling sectarianism by the football authorities. Only 16% of those who responded believed that the current approach was effective. Less than one in five of Scottish football fans believe that the Scottish football authorities are tackling this issue effectively. This should be a statistic that causes considerable concern in the corridors of power at Hampden. The message from the fans was clear – we believe your current approach is not working.

The research then broached the specific question of strict liability and whether it offered a potential solution to the problem of sectarian behaviour in Scottish football. It was here where the views of fans started to split into those who supported Celtic and Rangers and those who supported other teams in Scotland. I am aware that many Celtic and Rangers supporters dislike being lumped together in anything so was extremely wary of doing so, but their responses to this survey so closely mirrored each other that the data left us no option but to present many of the findings under the headings ‘Celtic and Rangers’ and ‘Fans of teams other than Celtic or Rangers’. To do otherwise would have run contradictory to the inherent patterns of the findings.

This divergence of opinion was evident on the fundamental question around strict liability. Fans were asked whether Scottish clubs should be prepared to comply with a similar approach in domestic football that they complied with in UEFA competition. A minority of Celtic and Rangers fans agreed that clubs should be prepared to comply with strict liability rules (43%) whilst a majority of other fans believed that clubs should (64%). This was to be a pattern that was repeated again and again throughout the survey findings. Celtic and Rangers fans were broadly opposed to the introduction of any measures and this was reflected in the comments provided by both sets of supporters at the end of the survey.

There was fierce resistance to the introduction of strict liability which many saw as ‘interference’. As one supporter commented: “Sectarian chanting is a release valve. As long as it is just words it is acceptable.”

This tended not to be a view shared by fans of other clubs. There was support for the introduction of strict liability amongst every other group of fans from the Scottish Premiership right down through the leagues of the SPFL and into non-league football. There was at times intense frustration and a strong sense that something needed to be done to eradicate this from the Scottish game.

One supporter wrote: “The clubs, SPFL and SFA can’t stick their head in the sand any longer. It’s 2017 and time to end this shameful behaviour.”

This is not to say that the pattern of opinion is clear-cut. There are a significant minority of fans of Celtic and Rangers who would welcome the introduction of strict liability, just as there are supporters of other clubs who are cautious about its introduction, particularly amongst those who support other Scottish Premiership teams. Much of this caution seemed to stem from distrust of the Scottish football authorities to introduce and apply strict liability fairly. One supporter voiced this concern when writing: “The general fear of Scottish football fans with strict liability is that a non-Old Firm club will be the first to be sanctioned, despite us continually witnessing unacceptable behaviour from Old Firm supporters for decades.” For supporters such as these, they would need reassured that strict liability would be applied fairly before they supported its introduction.

Fans were also asked about which specific measures would be most effective in reducing incidences of offensive and sectarian behaviour at football grounds in Scotland. It was believed that verbal warnings and reprimands would have little impact on the behaviour of fans. The most effective measures were perceived to be exclusion from competitions, deduction of points and banning supporters from the clubs responsible. Around 40%-50% believed these measures would work, with a significant number of fans still unsure as to whether these measures would be effective or not. The research highlighted a degree of pessimism around the whole issue, with 42% of supporters believing that ‘fans will always engage in sectarian and offensive behaviour, nothing can be done’.

The call for ‘something to be done’ can often seem fairly vacuous but the clear message from this survey is that people want change. Most fans, even those strongly opposed to the introduction of strict liability, are experiencing sectarian language when they attend Scottish football grounds and there is consensus that the current approach is ineffective.

The overall conclusion is clear. There is majority support for the introduction of strict liability amongst Scottish football fans, with the exception of those who support Celtic or Rangers.

The indication from these results is that some of the opposition to strict liability is based on the perceived inaction of the Scottish football authorities in the past. If these fans could be reassured that any strict liability scheme adopted by Scottish football would be applied fairly, perhaps by a transparent, independent body, then some may be more supportive of this approach. This suggests that it is an approach that is at least worthy of consideration.

On a personal level, I have my own direct experience of sectarianism within Scottish football grounds. When my own team, Raith Rovers, played Rangers in the Championship a few season ago we were subjected to repeated sectarian songs from the away support at both fixtures whilst police and stewards did nothing.

On my last trip to Celtic Park to watch Raith Rovers in the League Cup, I was called an “Orange bastard” inside the ground and subjected to songs celebrating the IRA after the game. Again, police and stewards failed to act.

I am not suggesting that sectarianism and offensive behaviour is limited to the fans of these two clubs, just that these just happen to be my own personal experiences. And I am not alone. If those with responsibility for our game take just one statistic away from this survey, it is that 63% of fans have had a similar experience to mine while supporting their club in Scottish football grounds. That is completely unacceptable and a reason to act. Doing nothing is simply not an option.

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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