Racism’s rise in football demands harsher sanctions and better mental health support

Dany Rose Mitch Gunn/Shutterstock

The English defender Danny Rose first experienced depression after a lengthy break from action following delayed knee surgery. His depression was deepened by family tragedy and racist abuse. Fearing similar racism at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Rose told his family to avoid the event. This fear for their safety at the tournament caused him great distress.

Racist abuse in football increased sharply in 2019. There were more than 150 incidents reported to police last season, representing a rise of more than 50% compared with the season before.

This worrying rise has been seen across every level of competition – from international matches to amateur leagues. For fans and football organisations this is an alarming trend. While moves have been made penalise those responsible for incidents, they have been deemed insufficient. There has also been a lack of mental health support for players experiencing such abuse.

Poor sanctions

One of the worst recent incidents of racism took place in October 2019, during the build up and fallout from England’s away match in Bulgaria. The game was a qualifier for the 2020 European Championships. Bulgaria was already paying the penalty for past incidents of racist abuse and 5,000 seats were kept empty). However, throughout the game Bulgaria’s fans gave Nazi salutes and hurled persistent racist abuse (including chants and monkey noises) at England’s Tyrone Mings and Raheem Sterling.

Raheem Sterling received racist abuse while playing in Bulgaria. Belish/Shutterstock

Uefa sanctioned Bulgaria, fining them €75,000 and ordering them to play behind closed doors after the racist abuse. This was a missed opportunity to come down hard on racism with Danny Rose, among others, calling the disciplinary action a “farce”.

This raises the question about what adequate and effective sanctions might include. With the increased availability and improvement of reporting mechanisms and video footage (from CCTV and fan mobile phones) the identification of abusive individuals means that targeted stadium bans have increasingly been used.

And while such moves work to deal with the issue at source, they do little to handle any mental health fallout.

Lack of support

The conversation around mental health in elite sport has changed dramatically in recent years. In particular, there has been a significant increase in players’ willingness to publicly disclose their mental health diagnoses and campaign for better fan awareness.

This positive change has led to a greater understanding of the common causes of mental health issues in professional sports players – including competitive pressures, job insecurity, long-term injury and retirement. It has also helped to shed light on the stigma attached to seeking help, which can lead players to delay or not deal with their mental health.

While this is all good, the link between mental wellbeing and racism – particularly the long-term impacts of such abuse – is still sorely overlooked.

Renée Hector, a defender for Tottenham’s women’s team, candidly disclosed the events that led to her depression in a BBC Sport interview. The initial racist incident came from an opposition player during the championship match in January 2019. The abusive player was banned for five games and fined £200 but denied allegations. This started in motion the decline in Hector’s mental health. While deeply upsetting it was the vicious and relentless online abuse that followed that made her fall into a depression. She has since called for harsher punishments for racist abuse in football and for more help for players experiencing such incidents.

Hector’s revelations make plain how footballers are left exposed and unsupported by sporting organisations and their employers.

When considering mental health issues in the sport the question is who has a duty of care for the player and other football club staff? Is it their club, the national Football Association (FA), the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), Uefa or Fifa or their personal agent? Clearly national associations and governing bodies are failing to adequately punish and prevent racism. They are also compounding the issues by failing to provide pastoral support to those who experience it. These shortcomings could have lasting effects and until effective change occurs players can and will continue to walk off the pitch.

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