The UK’s Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to treat an employee unfavourably or have practices which disadvantage them because of a ‘protected characteristic’—such as race. The act also covers harassment.
Consequences include fines and compensation claims—from civil action or employment tribunals—as well as investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Employers may be held “vicariously liable” for discrimination by their employees and cases can be brought against individuals, organisations or both. One type of organisation that can be held accountable under this act is football clubs.
When harassment comes from fans—such as abuse from the crowd—this may be covered by The Football Offences Act 1991. This applies to “designated matches”, such as those between teams in the Football, Football Association (FA) Premier, Football Conference, Scottish Football or Welsh Premier leagues or most FA cup matches. Racially aggravated offences, including harassment, may fall under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 if they occur outside the stadium or during other kinds of football matches.
These laws ought to protect footballers from racism at the hands of employers, fellow footballers and fans. But this does not seem to be happening in practice. There have been recent attempts by police to prosecute fans for racist behaviour. Metropolitan Police interviewed a Chelsea fan under caution following allegations of racial abuse directed at Manchester City player, Raheem Sterling, during a match in December 2018. No arrests have yet been made. In February 2019, a Burnley fan was charged by Sussex police following alleged racism towards Brighton & Hove Albion’s Gaëtan Bong. In the same month, two men were charged in Scotland after allegations of racist behaviour at an Aberdeen versus Rangers match. Outcomes of these cases are pending.
Footballs governing bodies can attempt to combat racism through disciplinary regulations. The Football Association (FA) may penalise clubs, under FA Rule E3, with match bans and fines. It recently brought charges of racist language against Peter Beardsley in his role as coach of Newcastle United’s Under-23 players. Beardsley, who resigned, denies the claims. Crystal Palace FC’s Head of Academy Coaching, David Muir, resigned in March 2019 following the club’s investigation of a racial incident in a bar. Whether he or the club will face any further action is not clear.
Players have also been accused of racism towards each other. Although a court cleared Chelsea’s John Terry of abusing QPR’s Anton Ferdinand in 2011, the FA investigation found him guilty, imposing a fine and a four-match ban. The FA issued Liverpool’s Luis Suarez with an eight-match ban and fine in 2012, for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. Neither club appears to have faced sanctions relating to the actions of their players.
The Union of European Football Association (UEFA) can also impose bans, fines and partial stadium closures. It recently opened disciplinary proceedings against Montenegro, following racist chants at a Euro 2020 qualifier in March 2019. Following this incident, FA Chairman Greg Clarke said his organisation would be reviewing its disciplinary processes and training for match stewards. Speaking at the Equal Game conference at Wembley in April 2019, he also called on UEFA to broaden the circumstances where referees can initiate the three-step protocol to halt, suspend and abandon matches. The FA had also imposed its first life bans on England fans for racist behaviour, during a match with Germany in 2017.
Football’s international federation (FIFA) can also sanction clubs and individuals under Articles 57 and 58 of its disciplinary code. Clubs are also liable for behaviour of fans under Article 67. FIFA fined the Russian Football Union £22,000 for racist chants directed towards French players at a match in March 2018. English football’s equality and inclusion organisation, Kick It Out, stated it was “deeply disappointed” at this “pitiful fine”. FIFA’s Task Force against Racism was disbanded in 2016—but some would argue that it still has work to do.
It can be difficult for police to gather enough evidence to charge individuals within a crowd and penalties issued to clubs by football’s governing bodies are often considered too lenient. Clubs have stood by players accused of racism and when other employees have faced allegations they have been allowed (or persuaded) to resign. In other industries, courts seem more inclined to find employers “vicariously liable” for the actions of their employees, including discrimination (see Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets). Pursuing clubs for vicarious liability may be one way to try to hold them accountable for the behaviour of employees but this approach would not extend to fans. Stronger penalties from the sport’s governing bodies would offer a more immediate incentive to clubs to address racism throughout management, players and fans.