Game to take a firmer stance against racism

East Stirlingshire's Jordan Tapping was subject to  racist abuse at Peterhead. Picture: Duncan Brown
East Stirlingshire's Jordan Tapping was subject to racist abuse at Peterhead. Picture: Duncan Brown
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TOUGHER sanctions for dealing with the sort of racist abuse suffered by East Stirlingshire’s Jordan Tapping at Peterhead are under review.

A working party comprising members of the SFA, SPFL and Police Scotland has been meeting to come up with what a source within the SFA described to Scotland on Sunday as “a more robust response” to cases of unacceptable conduct such as that which occurred last Saturday at Balmoor.

Calling the treatment of 17-year-old Tapping a “real setback” in terms of the many equality programmes aimed at increasing the football participation of ethnic minorities, the source accepts Scotland’s reputation in the game has been sullied.

East Stirlingshire manager John Coughlin had to substitute a tearful Tapping after he was the victim of sustained racist abuse from a section of the Peterhead support.

At the moment, directives for handling such cases in Scotland do not follow UEFA protocols. In European competition, the concept of strict liability means clubs are held directly responsible for the behaviour of their supporters. Unacceptable conduct comes under the jurisdiction of the SPFL in Scotland, however, and the league body follows principles whereby assessments as to what action should be taken are made on the basis of what is reasonably practicable. Effectively, it means individual supporters are deemed accountable for any violations if it is judged that clubs have done all they reasonably could to prevent any abuses under the unacceptable behaviour banner.

The SFA held a vote of its member clubs last year, with chief executive Stewart Regan urging them to accept strict liability. All but one voted against, with the feeling being that clubs should not be punished for rogue elements within their support.

The difference in how such matters are handled was demonstrated in the fact that UEFA fined Celtic for political banners whereas the SPFL gave a warning over future conduct when the same rule was contravened.

The SPFL would point to the complexities revealed by the Tapping case. Peterhead chairman Rodger Morrison immediately issued an apology to the player and denounced the actions of some supporters on the club website. Peterhead also helped the police identify supporter Donnie Fraser, who last week pleaded guilty to racially abusing Tapping, and then contacted Show Racism the Red Card so they could have a red card display that involved the players holding up the educational group’s placards before their midweek game against Annan Athletic.

Yet the desire of the SFA to introduce a system whereby a sliding scale of sanctions could range from a fine to closing parts of a stadium or docking points is motivated by the success, as a deterrent, that such sanctions can bring. The alternative is that clubs feel they are forced into taking their own course of action to demonstrate such abuse is intolerable – as was demonstrated by East Stirlingshire chairman Tony Ford this week saying he had instructed his players to walk off the pitch if similar abuse was suffered by Tapping in the future. The East Stirlingshire team implored Gavin Duncan, the young referee in charge at Peterhead last Saturday, to do something about the monkey noises and racist comments audible from the early stages.

The fact that one of the most despicable racist incidents at a Scottish football ground in recent years could occur in a game watched by only 554 spectators suggests the problem is more widespread than perceived. It also highlights the importance of such campaigning groups as Show Racism the Red Card at a time when the charity, set up in 2003, is facing cuts in the funding it receives through the Scottish Government’s Equality Unit and Safer Communities Unit. Public sector cuts mean that by 2014-15 the group’s grant will be slashed by two-thirds, placing its ability to retain its four staff and educational workshops it carries out in schools and football clubs under threat.

“What happened last week shows we cannot be complacent when it comes to racism in Scotland,” said Vicky Burns, campaign manager for Show Racism the Red Card. “We do not know what it will be possible to do, in terms of our campaigns and educational work, once the cuts are imposed. We are not simply focused on football but use the game as a vehicle to get the message across about the fact that racism has no place in the game or wider society. Our team does not have a legal background so we would not attempt to tell football how to act when examples of racist abuse happen. We see our work as attempting to prevent racism happening.”

It is work that needs financial and moral support, and, in a football context, to be backed up by the appropriate sanctions that have too long been side-stepped by the Scottish league bodies.