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10th Nov, 2023

How our Fan Education programme is helping to tackle Sectarianism

When discrimination happens, our fan education programme helps the people involved see why it must stop.

Alan Bush, Fan Education & Engagement Manager at Kick It Out, works to rehabilitate offenders of discriminatory abuse, including perpetrators of sectarianism.

We spoke to Alan about what Sectarianism is, what it looks like and how he works one-on-one with offenders to shift mindsets and combat abuse.

What is Sectarian abuse and how does it impact football?

The definition is always a good place to start. At Kick It Out we work with a Scottish-based organisation called Nil by Mouth, who describe it as: “Narrow-minded beliefs that lead to prejudice, discrimination, malice and ill will towards members, or presumed members, of a religious denomination.”

It’s important to say that in the United Kingdom, sectarianism is predominantly abuse and discrimination related to Protestant/Catholic divisions, however it does exist in other faiths too.

In football, sectarian abuse often manifests in chants, booing and verbal abuse targeting players or managers. Former England and Rangers midfielder Paul Gascoigne and former Northern Irish and Celtic midfielder Neil Lennon are two high-profile players who have been targeted in the past, while James McClean, who currently plays for Wrexham, has endured social media abuse, terrorist chants, booing, insults, and verbal abuse in recent years.

Last season, Kick It Out saw a 10% increase in reports of sectarian chanting so we know this issue isn’t going away, which is why it’s important we tackle it and educate people about it.

How are you using fan education to tackle sectarian abuse and chanting?

For someone to be put in touch with me they must have been involved in a discriminatory incident, either in the stadium, on the way to the stadium or online.

So, if someone is involved in singing certain chants around a football stadium and they are targeting someone for their religion or belief, that is classified as a hate crime, and you’d be breaching the Equality Act. Once an incident has been reported, the victim will be contacted by the police or football club and from there the incident will be investigated.

That is where Kick It Out comes in: to deliver one-on-one sessions with perpetrators as part of our fan education programme.

The sessions will be restorative and rehabilitative, and specifically designed around the individual incident. For example, if someone has targeted James McClean for not wearing a poppy, I’d look to create a bespoke education session looking at the reasons he may have made that choice and challenging the perpetrator’s views.

How would you approach the session with a perpetrator?

For anyone I see who has been involved in sectarianism, I’d start with asking them specifically why they hold the opinions they have, where they got these views from and then going on to challenge whether those views are accurate.

I recently worked with three young fans who had targeted James McClean. After working with them on why they held the views that had resulted in them perpetrating abuse, I looked to challenge and educate them, looking at how McClean has been perceived in the media and the reasons why he may choose not to wear a poppy.

The good thing was that their views from the start to the end of the session had completely changed. It was a very interactive session and it was great to see how much their attitude shifted.

I always try and ensure the session is as victim-centred as possible and will always start with the victim’s point of view.  That will either be by getting the victim’s view ahead of the session and if that’s not possible, then getting the victim’s consent through the police or referrer.

That’s where I can come in with a restorative approach. In the absence of the victim in the room, I almost take on a surrogate victim approach to say to the offender, ‘this is how you’ve made the victim feel.’

Why is fan education so important for tackling sectarian abuse?

For me, it’s important to educate people, to help society understand why we hold certain views. Ultimately, we all carry some prejudice and it’s about challenging ourselves and understanding why these prejudices exist.

What sort of society are we if we just ban people for life? Education can absolutely work in hand with a football banning order, but if you just give someone a lifetime ban then there’s nowhere to come back from.

Yes, certain behaviours are so horrific that we may not want that person inside a football stadium. I’m not going to recommend that every fan who goes through fan education goes back to football. But that has to be the aim.

Our objective is to rehabilitate offenders using restorative practices and hopefully reintegrate them back into football. If we do that, we’re going a long way toward achieving our goals.