Unacceptable scenes at the Hearts-Hibs football match demonstrate the Scottish game has a serious problem that demands action, not just words.
Two days ago, The Scotsman hailed football as the “beautiful game” and lauded its benefits on our health, wealth and happiness.
But, as everyone in Scotland knows, our national game has an ugly side. The Edinburgh derby, which took place on the same day as this paper’s glowing editorial was published, saw Hibs manager Neil Lennon hit by a coin, Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal allegedly hit in the face, and several other incidents.
It was the latest sign that football grounds are places where hate is allowed to fester and spread and, at times, spill over into violence.
According to a survey last year, more than a quarter of Scottish school pupils have witnessed offensive behaviour while watching football. Is there any other public place where children are so often exposed to religious bigotry, racism, sexism and utterly vile chants?
The Scottish Government tried to do something about this by introducing the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. Clearly there were problems with its drafting and implementation, but when MSPs voted to repeal the Act earlier this year, without any attempt to replace it, they sent the wrong message to the worst offenders in the stands.
After the Hibs-Hearts game, Fraser Wishart, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association Scotland, said it was “like Groundhog Day” as it seemed like they were “continually” having to address similar issues at grounds across Scotland. Any individuals guilty of acts of violence must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law; it is clearly in the public interest to come down hard on any high-profile examples of violence, given their potential to embolden others to act in the same way.
But the root cause of the problem will not be solved in the courts; Scottish society as a whole needs to get involved. Responding to events at Tynecastle, Hearts and Hibs yesterday said exactly the right thing. In a joint statement, they stressed they were “united in their condemnation” of the “unsavoury incidents” which were “simply not acceptable”.
But such words need to be matched by actions designed to demonstrate the clubs’ unity and opposition not only to violence but the culture of hate that drives it. And they must be joined in this endeavour by every club in Scotland. Until this happens, football in Scotland does not deserve to be called “the beautiful game”.