What drives football fans to abuse reporters of racism?

You would hope there were some issues that transcended club loyalties and united fans in support of a larger, nobler cause. Take racism, for instance: if you heard racist abuse spewing from the mouth of a fan near you, you should be applauded for turning them in.

But for some reason, there are still plenty of people of the mindset that club loyalty should come first; that defending the “honour” of your club is more important than accepting for a second that racism and homophobia and sexism and a whole catalogue of other reprehensible behaviours might be coming from the people they share a stand with.

There are people who see a headline like “Burnley fan charged with racially abusing Brighton’s Gaëtan Bong” or “West Ham supporters’ board member resigns over controversial posts”, and decide that the author of the piece is saying that all Burnley fans are white supremacists or every single West Ham fan is a Nazi.

Those examples haven’t been plucked at random: both are stories that the Guardian’s Jacob Steinberg has worked on over the past couple of weeks, and both of them – the West Ham one in particular – have seen him become the subject of all kinds of vile abuse that defies reason.

After defending himself from a torrent of sickening abuse and thinly-veiled threats for a time, Steinberg has now taken the step of protecting his Twitter account, which means only the people he approves can now see his tweets or interact with him. This is no small measure to take in an age when social media clicks and interaction are vital tools for a journalist.

The fact that anyone thinks that kind of reaction is warranted demonstrates two fundamental misunderstandings. The first is in what constitutes ‘fighting words’, a concept that has been legally enshrined in some countries to offer mitigation in cases where one person provokes another to the extent that it could result in a reasonable recipient resorting to physical violence. I doubt you would find a jury in the land that would accept “your club are not good at football” or “some people who also support your club have been caught being racist” as so despicable that they warrant such anger.

The other problem is in understanding what a reasonable response is to mild provocation. There’s a video that has done the rounds this week of a man watching the football as someone out of frame sneakily turns his TV off at key moments. This results in the man utterly losing his shit and destroying the television. The comments beneath it are mostly that irritating “crying laughing” emoji, as if this were an embarrassing faux pas rather than a terrifying demonstration of some people’s inability to control their own behaviour in the face of a mild inconvenience.

Nonetheless, it is a brilliantly instructive demonstration of how the passion that can be so intoxicating in football can also push people much too far. I do not claim to be above reproach in this regard, nor do I see my occasional football-induced outbursts as something to be proud of, or as an inevitable flipside of enthusiastic support for my team. It is possible to enjoy yourself for 90 minutes without resorting to screaming angrily at people, if you choose to.

The issue with these two fundamental misunderstandings is that it empowers people to use football as a convenient excuse to indulge their worst instincts. Everyone sees themselves as John Wayne or Gene Hunt; their methods might be dodgy but they’re one of the Good Guys, fighting a just cause alongside their mates from the terraces or down the pub or round their living room. “Yeah, well, they started it” is seized upon as a justification for just about anything.

The reprobates who have unleashed this abuse also come across as football’s own special, no-less exhausting version of the #NotAllMen brigade: the vast swathe of people who are apparently more interested in ensuring complete and total grammatical accuracy than in listening to the content of a generalisation everyone understands to be just that, or in decrying the faceless perpetrators accurately described as “men”.

These people either don’t realise or don’t care that doing so chokes out any discussion of the bigger, more important issues. Yes, of course not all West Ham fans do this; nobody is saying it’s all West Ham fans, and a large proportion of West Ham fans are sensible enough to understand that not every sentence can be caveated and clarified and explained to the absolute satisfaction of these bizarre people who believe everything is aimed at them unless they have been specifically excluded. You wonder how they find time in their busy schedule of phoning the police to confirm each and every individual crime they did not commit.

That staggering level of ego carries over into reactions to content, too. Have a look at the reaction to the latest episode of the BBC’s LGBT sports podcast, for instance:

Someone has released a podcast that isn’t aimed at them! The gall! When will someone finally release a football podcast that’s hosted entirely by straight white men?

Don’t you just want to shake these people and scream “NOT EVERYTHING IS AIMED AT YOU AND THAT’S FINE”?

It would be lovely to shrug this off as an online-only issue. Certainly, there are plenty of people who have seen there are the means to share their opinion on anything and everything and interpreted that as an instruction. But we do see this bizarre sense of entitlement transfer to the stands: look at Manchester United fans booing Angel di Maria for totally unknown reasons, or more seriously, the ever-increasing reports of racist and homophobic abuse.

It’s deeply saddening that all it takes is a keyboard or a ticket to turn some people into monsters. And if you think you’re one of the people who manage to avoid that, and the headline at the top of this piece does not apply to you, then great! Give yourself a private little pat on the back, keep it to yourself, and help the rest of us to tackle the imbeciles.

Steven Chicken is on Twitter


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