—- Felicity Adams and Fabienne Emmerich, Keele University —-
Recently, Kick it Out announced a rise in reported cases of racism and homophobia directed towards football players. The anti-racist organisation that promotes equality and inclusion in English football, documents in its annual report a rise in discrimintion despite the postponing of the football season in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown. Reported cases of discrimintion include racist and homophobic comments and chants at games and on social media. In response to the report’s findings, some have suggested that “tougher punishment” with tough sentences and police intervention constitute the core solutions to these harmful and deep-rooted social injustices.
Racism and homophobia in football are a longstanding phenomenon across Europe. The increase in the reported cases of racist and homophobic abuse is concerning, because they coincide with a time of converging social crises. The global pandemic and racialized police violence are disproportionately affecting the lives of Black people and people of colour. Meanwhile, the pandemic has also exacerbated many of the distinct and instercting vulnerabilities experienced by queer people.
Calls for tougher punishments represent an own goal
Racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny are real harms that players and fans have been exposed to and have suffered for far too long. Notwithstanding the trauma of these ongoing experiences, the solution can not be to draw on coercive institutions that perpetuate these systemic inequalities. By this we mean the systems and practices that reproduce the logics of what Angela Davis terms the “Prison Industrial Complex”: in short, the interlocking systems of punishment, social control, and surveillance that centre violence, shaming and othering to redress social and political injustices.
It is alarming that this call for harsher punishments to address these harms in football is vocalized at a time when the global Black Lives Matter movement against institutional anti-blackness is gaining support. The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in May set off a wave of solidarity across the world and ignited the latest chapter in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Importantly, the latest chapter in the Black Lives Matter movement has reinforced the urgency for us as white allies to actively take steps to embed anti-racist praxis into our everyday lives.
Similarly, it is concerning that calls for tougher punishments in football follow shortly after Pride. Pride is a month of celebration to remember the work and sacrifices to establish the gay rights and queer liberation movement in the face of historic police brutality.
In similar and divergent ways, members of both social movements have endured systemic police violence. To varying degrees, both movements challenge police violence and the role of the broader punitive state in privileging the lives of some and rendering the lives of others as expendable.
So why is this call for tougher punishments in the context of football concerning? Racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny are systemic ‘othering’. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007: 247) in her book Golden Gulag, explains how the logics of racism are central to the function of the prison and other state institutions:
“Racism is the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. Prison expansion is a new iteration of this theme. Prisons and other locally unwanted land uses accelerate the mortality of modestly educated working people of all kinds in urban and rural settings and show how economic and environmental justice are central to antiracism.”
But, surely, if this is the case, we can simply improve these systems to eradicate racism and enable their intended function? In short, no. It is precisely because the foundation of these systems are imbued with racism that they are rendered immutable and unsuitable responses to racist abuse. Similarly, Eric. A Stanley, Dean Spade, and Queer (In)Justice (2012: 122) in their piece “Queering Prison Abolition, Now?” demonstrate how racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism are central to the functioning of the “Prison Industrial Complex”: “there is no way [the criminal legal system] exists without these systems of domination, and it was established to enforce them”.
Although well-intentioned, calls for tougher punishments to address racist and homophobic injustices in football rely on systems of redress that bolster racist and homopbic logics. As such, they invariably produce outcomes that are diametrically opposed to those, who intend to gain accountability for these injustices. They will actually result in the increased vulnerability of those who are marginalized. Whenever we consider harsher responses to social and political issues, we must instead question, as Angela Davis recently reminds us:
“How easy it is to reach for existing strategies and tools assuming that they alone can bring about change. If prisons are overly repressive just carve out that which renders them racist and repressive, but leave everything else in tact. But of course soon the perceptive amongst us recognise that racism and repression are not discreet problems can be removed by dissection, but rather are integrally woven into the very fabric of carcerality” (Incite, 2020!).
It is clear that for a meaningful and sustainable solution we cannot look to these same institutions to properly remedy the harms from systemic othering in football and wider society.
Facing tribalism and ‘othering’: showing discrimination the red card
Football has a long tradition in perpetuating tribalism. Club loyalty is passed on within families and clubs are strongly rooted in the social, cultural and economic history of adjoining communities. While for many fandom is part of their identity and associated with a sense of pride, it is also inherently exclusionary. ‘Othering’ is structural in football.
Judith Butler in her recently published book The Force of Non-Violence (2020) highlights that the processes of ‘othering’ are intrinsic in a neoliberal, consumerist society. They result in the structuring of lives as “grievable” and those, whose death will not be mourned. She argues that equality must mean a political commitment from us, as individuals and at a societal level, to recognize all lives as grievable.
“The presumption of equal grievability would be not only a conviction or attitude with which another person greets you, but a principle that organizes the social organization of health, food, shelter, employment, sexual life, and civic life” (Butler, 2020: 59).
The solution is to reconfigure our economic and social lives to acknowledge and live our “social and global obligations to one another” (Butler, 2020: 63). This is not an idealist vision. It is possible. For at the height of the global pandemic, the futility of an economy based on the exchange of goods and services was laid bare. While Covid-19 has magnified systemic inequalities, it has also exposed the importance of care and caregiving across the public and private spheres. Care work is not only central to our immediate survival in the present crises. But as mutual aid initiatives have shown us, it is intrinsic to crafting new ways of living and being beyond these times.
Judith Butler (2020) calls for us to acknowledge that our lives are bound up with one another. This can be at times challenging, full of conflict and at other times pleasurable and fun. It requires us to commit to “the affirmation of this life, bound up with yours, and with the realm of the living: an affirmation caught up with a potential for destruction and its countervailing force (65).
Moving up to the division above: what next?
Central to cultivating a society in which all lives are “equally grievable” must be our collective liberation from coercive and punitive institutions such as the prison and policing. These institutions are built on the very harms that the report by Kick It Out seeks to redress. As such, using these strategies prevents us from living our “social and global obligations to one another” (Butler, 2020: 63). Yet, governments in the UK and US have for decades been involved in promoting and increasing funding for these coercive institutions that perpetuate a myriad of systemic inequalities and structural violence. This has been a continued response during the global pandemic (Emmerich and Adams, 2020).
Clearly, this pervasive rhetoric, that limits our potential to grow and maintain meaningful relationships with one another, is seeping through to our social activities that give us pleasure. This is the case in the football sphere. This does not have to be the case. When speaking about Incite! Angela Davis remarks:
“Incite! has always known how to be vigilant without being intransigent, without loosing its creative flexibility. Incite! has recognised that even as we focus on particular cases we need to make the larger context explicit” (Incite 2020!).
In a similar vein, football managers, players and fans should work collaboratively to end narrow and surface-level ways of resolving conflict, which emerges under neoliberal, consumerist economies. If football bosses are serious about ending discrimination in all forms, they must transcend systemic forms of ‘othering’. Football managers, players and fans should embrace this as an opportunity to expose and challenge the broader social conditions that enable racism and homophobia and further injustices to thrive.
This post was also published on medium.com on September 7, 2020.