Off the field and on to the feed: tackling racism online - Part 3 of 3

The Role of the Football Association Published 06 February 2013 By: Laura Scaife

Off the field and on to the feed: tackling racism online - Part 3 of 3

A clear theme running through this article is that the time had come for FA led regulation, in order to consider the path going forward it is firstly necessary to consider the stance taken by the FA in response to racist abuse generally. It must be acknowledged that the FA does promote equality based on the dual aspects of inclusion and anti-discrimination, supports a number of anti-racism charities, such as Show Racism the Red CardFootball Unites and Racism Divides, and Football Against Racism in Europe. It is also a trustee and funding partner for the “Kick It Out” campaign. However while the work of such bodies is extremely valuable it is arguable that more needs to be done to tackle racism head on in a formally recognised regulatory capacity. Indeed at the end of last summer, the Football Association were accused of "institutional racism" for not referring alleged comments by referee Mark Clattenburg to the police. 

The Metropolitan Police dropped its own investigation into a complaint, which was made by the Society of Black Lawyers that Clattenburg used a racially offensive term during Chelsea's 3-2 defeat at home to Manchester United on 28 October. It is understood Chelsea did not give evidence to the police because they felt the FA was the appropriate body to deal with the matter. "We had the Downing Street summit on racism in football earlier in the year and the FA are coming back to us before the end of the year and as soon as we have that response we will assess what to do next." The police investigation was discontinued because "no victims have come forward" and "without a victim and/or any evidence that any offence has been committed, the matter cannot currently be investigated". The Association of Black Lawyers have stated that they were furious that neither the governing body nor Chelsea have taken the matter to the police and that the society would take up the FA's handling of the allegations with sports minister Hugh Robertson. 

The Professional Footballers Association have also considered the issue and encourage players to be active in communicating with fans on social networks and to express opinions and ideas, though "not in a way that would be deemed offensive, abusive or bringing the game into disrepute". The PFA have suggested that players should steer clear of tweeting anything they wouldn't say on camera. Moreover before the current season got underway, the Barclay's Premier League set out social media guidelines for players as well. What is perhaps notably missing is a clear stance from the FA. 

Whilst encouraging players to behave responsibly when using social media is welcome, there is clearly the risk with club measures is that there will be variance between clubs and as such there needs to be general guidelines in place which again brings the issue back to the door of the FA. Moreover even if clubs are receptive to taking such measures, given the delicate balance between fan interaction and player welfare, it is suggested that the appropriate body to carry out the task is the FA, enjoying as it does a position of independence from individual club considerations such as finance and sponsorship. 

It is suggested that if a complaints procedure was adopted and the task of deciding if claims are to be pursued was given to the legal department within the FA this could do much to manage the reporting process and achieve the correct results in a greater number of circumstances. By offering the issues up to those enjoying a position of greater impartiality there is an added advantage that in terms of public relations, clubs will be more likely to report matters and make players more likely to resist Tweeting about them (and potentially give oxygen to the issue) allowing clubs to receive just results through formal process without significant risk of reputational damage to clubs and players who may become embroiled in disputes online.


What could the Model look like?

A comprehensive consideration of what a Code of Practice for offences surrounding racism and other hate crime is beyond the scope of this piece and will be picked up in a future article. However, picking up from the Frimpong example and the concept of division of responsibility and appropriate sanctions the model adopted by the regulator for dealing with such issues could be as follows: 

  1. Passing the matter back for club level sanction if the issue is considered minor; or
  2. For intermediate offences short of criminal standards the new regulator itself could consider arbitration on the matter under its own powers; or
  3. In the case of conduct which reaches criminal standards (and also matters at the threshold) referral up to another body e.g. the Crown Prosecution Service.


Getting the Message Across

It is suggested that the time has come for the FA to enforce a Code of Practice in relation to racism social media which goes beyond a policies or best practice guides. In order to be effective a new reporting procedure with clear channels for bringing complaints needs to be created. This is not to suggest that individual club policies do not have a place, indeed the model should be backed up by individual club policies which should catch offensive activity which falls short of criminal sanction and also cover a myriad of other issues which affect clubs e.g. e-commerce and lesser offences which result in reputational risk. 

The issue of racism reared its ugly head repeatedly in 2012 and shows no signs of abating in 2013, that is unless a radical overhaul of the regulatory framework affecting social media takes place. While football is considered a social activity it should not be forgotten that for players it is their workplace. Clubs and the industry regulators have a responsibility to ensure the welfare of these individuals and send out a strong message to society that racism both on the pitch and online will not be tolerated. Ideally there should be little grey area (and certainly less than fifty shades) as to whether a comment is “offside” and if and when a red card will be given (i.e. a Code of Practice). Even if a situation does arise which merits sanction then there needs to be someone to referee it (i.e. a dedicated Regulatory Team within the FA). In a match a club would not referee themselves so why would they when it comes to the application or pursuit of a legal remedy?  



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Laura Scaife

Laura Scaife

Laura is an innovative thinker in the field of Social Media and has been extensively published on matters concerning compliance with e-commerce issues arising out of the Office of Fair Trading and Advertising Standard Agency guidelines as well as online revenue generation, defamation, electronic communications based offences, effective dispute settlement, business crisis management and reputational management.

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