By Jim Dolan – Co-Chair
On Wednesday 1st December 2021 we face Brighton at home for what will be our Rainbow Laces fixture for this season. The last time West Ham faced Brighton at the London stadium with fans present was 1st February 2020. West Ham had only recently reinstated David Moyes as manager and we had no idea if he’d be able to keep us in the Premier League. We also had no idea that by the end of the following month we’d be in a national lockdown with “Coronavirus” being a term most hadn’t heard of.
It was a disappointing game for several reasons. Firstly we managed to throw away a 3-1 lead and two points (naturally with Glenn bloody Murray scoring the equaliser), but also because of the by-now-expected instances of homophobic abuse directed at Brighton fans. This time resulting in the arrest and prosecution of 4 West Ham fans, all charged with offences under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. All four pleaded guilty in court; two of whom were fined £200 plus costs and the other two £120 plus costs as well as a three-year football banning order.
West Ham United were criticised in the media for not immediately giving indefinite bans to the four fans themselves as per their public commitment to a zero tolerance approach to discriminatory abuse. On seeing these reports, I reached out to my fellow committee members and we had an emergency meeting to discuss this and were all in agreement:
Zero tolerance banning approaches are not the way forward.
Kicking people out of the stadiums doesn’t stop homophobia. It merely kicks it outside of the stadium turnstiles. You don’t make positive change in the world by excluding people when they make mistakes. I contacted the club to express our disagreement and desire for an education-based approach. Fortunately the club were receptive to this and put me in touch with the good people at Kick It Out and so started my foray into the realms of fan education. The agreement was made with the club that although they would still implement indefinite bans, they could be rescinded if the fans successfully completed education sessions led by Kick It Out and including representatives from West Ham United and Pride Of Irons.
That way people have the choice: Face up to their mistakes and find a way back into football or; choose to give up football off their own backs.
To date I’ve participated in education sessions with two fans. Now I’m not going to go into details on what is said in the sessions as that’s between the people who are in them. However, I will say that my personal drive to be involved in them is not to seek retribution by making someone feel bad or uncomfortable. I’m not there to judge or point the finger in any way. I’m simply there to listen and to provide context and my own experiences and those of our community. It gives people the opportunity to explain what they did in their own words and what happened after and how they feel about the whole situation. They can ask me questions or my opinion and I’ll always be completely honest with them. I don’t try to lead the sessions in any particular direction. I just help Kick It Out by providing the real-lived experiences of someone from the community relevant to the abuse.
Some see organisations like ours as militant. That somehow we want to “sterilise” football and to get people banned. The reality is we want more people in stadiums. Not less. And to do that, we have to make sure that nobody feels excluded. Be that people from our own community, people from other minority communities, families, women, men and yes – even people who have made mistakes and want to make amends.
If having read this, you’re of the opinion that homophobic abuse is just “banter” and we’re all being too sensitive – including the police and court system – then please, consider this: if you don’t want to eliminate homophobic abuse for us, for your friends and family who might be part of our community or for anyone else, then please do it for yourself. From the 2018/2019 season to the 2019/2020 season, instances of homophobic abuse in football went up for 96% – practically double! And whilst the four people convicted after the game in 2020 may have received what seems, on the face of it, to be a “slap on the wrists”, the legal approach to these offences is changing. The courts are becoming far stricter and the sentences are no longer small fines but much harsher sanctions including custodial sentences.
In September 2021 there were two instances of abuse that set a new standard.
Firstly a Cheshire man was convicted of posting racist abuse online aimed at England players after the Euro final. His punishment included:
- 14 week prison sentence – suspended for 18 months
- 30 days of rehabilitation activities
- Curfew including electronic tag for 40 months
- Over £300 in fines and costs
Secondly, a 50 year old man from Kingswinford in the West Midlands was convicted of sending racially abusive messages to a West Brom player on social media. His punishment resulted in an immediate custodial sentence:
- An 8 week sentence – half in prison and half on licence
- £1,000 in compensation and costs
As you can see from these examples, the courts are no longer willing to deal with discriminatory abuse within football with mere fines and neither is it restricted to the physical realm of football stadiums. So even if you consider limp wrist gestures and chants of “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” and “Stand up if you can’t sit down” as banter and a laugh, is it really funny enough to go to prison for? To risk your job? Your career? Your reputation? Your relationships? Your ability to attend a game you claim to love?
So please, for us, for your LGBTQIA+ friends and family, for the good name of West Ham United and if nothing else, for yourself – on Wednesday night, make it about the football.