Social Justice

Football fans are fed up of racism, sexism and homophobia. Here's how to kick it out for good

Earlier this month, West Ham United received the Premier League’s highest award for its commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion. It's time to change football for the better

West Ham have been awarded the Premier League's highest diversity and inclusion award. Credit: West Ham.

Jo Bailey is a born-and-bred West Ham fan. But in the 1990s, she stopped going to football games.

“It was a huge part of our family,” she says. “I was wearing Claret & Blue before I was old enough to know what West Ham was. When I hear Bubbles [The West Ham song] sung, I can almost hear people who aren’t here anymore singing with me.”

Bailey is a lesbian. And as she began to express her identity, she stopped feeling welcome in the stadium environment she loved so much. “I used to go along, and you’d get the extra little nudge, the extra little push,” she recalls. “Someone might say, stop being a snowflake. But if you’re that individual, you know what it is, you feel a threat.”

Football fans have a bit of a reputation. Homophobic chanting has plagued high-profile matches. After the Euro 2020 final, England’s prominent Black players were inundated with racist abuse. And there isn’t a single openly gay footballer in the Premier League.

But clubs – and the vast majority of fans – are fed up with discrimination.

Earlier this month, West Ham United received the Premier League’s highest award for its commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. It is the second time the Hammers have clinched the award, with the Premier League’s report finding that the club’s “well-communicated, zero-tolerance stance on all forms of abuse and discrimination is undoubtedly achieving demonstrable impact and lasting change”.

Bailey – now the co-chair of West Ham’s queer supporters group, Pride of Irons – has praised the “dialogue” the club keeps up with their queer and minority ethnic supporter groups.

“We’re working hard to tackle the hate, on and off the pitch,” she says. “But there’s still a way to go”

How can we stamp out abuse in football?

Kick it Out – an organisation dedicated to stamping out discrimination in football – received a record 1,007 reports of discriminatory behaviour in the 2022-23 season.

The figure is troubling. But encouragingly, Kick It Out’s report-per-incident rate has risen for the fourth consecutive season, suggesting that fans are more inclined to report discrimination.

Depending on the severity of the offence, Pride of Irons work with the club to help rehabilitate banned fans.

Jo Bailey in the West Ham dressing room. Image: Sophie McCubbin

“We believe in giving people a second chance, we work with the club to do that,” Bailey explains. “I don’t like the word ‘educate’ that much, because it can be a bit patronising. Obviously, education is key, but I prefer ‘awareness’… talking to people gives it a human aspect.”

Engaging with offenders is crucial, explains Fred Harms, a campaign worker for Show Racism The Red Card (SRtRC). SRtRC is the UK’s leading anti-racism educational charity.

“Banning offensive chants is important, of course, but you are never going to ban away a problem,” he says.

According to a 2021 poll, more than 70% of fans across England think professional football in the country has a serious problem with racism. This figure leapt by 17% after the 2020 Euros final, in which Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed decisive penalties and were deluged with racial abuse. Just 19 years old at the time, Saka said he “knew instantly the kind of hate” he would receive when he switched on his phone.

In 2022, researchers found that more than two-thirds of male football fans harbour hostile, sexist or misogynistic attitudes towards women’s sport.

There’s no denying that fans and players have suffered racist, sexist, and other forms of abuse in football stadiums.  

“I think people used to feel it was a place they could express [discriminatory] sentiments,” reflects Harms. But “it’s a societal issue more than a ‘football’ issue”.

“No one becomes a racist once they get to the stadium turnstile and stops being a racist once they leave. People bring their prejudices with them. So if you can connect football to anti-racism, it’s a really powerful tool to fight discrimination.”

SRtRC holds educational events with football clubs and delivers workshops with footballing role models in schools. Clubs like West Ham collaborate with the organisation to host events in stadiums.

Grassroots movements – like Pride of Irons – have helped make stadiums welcoming places for all fans.

“The supportive fan groups nurture these safe spaces,” says Cleo Madeleine, communications co-ordinator for Gendered Intelligence.

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“And to move the focus away from elite sport, we need to expand the participation of people in the game at the grassroots.”

There’s still a long way to go. As long as offensive chants ring out over stadium stands, and players of colour and women are deluged with online hate, clubs and fan groups will have work to do.

“Yes, there’s wrong ’uns out there. If there wasn’t hate, we wouldn’t even have to have this conversation,” Bailey says.

The Stratford local would like to see the club speed up its response to reports of discrimination, and increase visibility for its queer and other marginalised groups.

But the proud Hammer now feels able to support her beloved team without hiding who she is. Every football fan deserves to be themselves, she says.

“For us fans, [the stadium] is a home. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel unwelcome in my home. And it’s the same with my stadium.” 

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