Scottish football does not have a sectarianism problem.
Well, not in the way we seem determined to define it at least.
I’m convinced throughout this entire debate, which has run for decades now, that people have lost the understanding of what sectarianism actually is. It’s far broader than just religion. Being a football fan means you take your subdivision (team) of the group (the teams from that nation or beyond) and decide your team is superior, the rest inferior, and apply a fair amount of hatred therein. Even if you’re not inclined towards strong emotions against other teams, you’re not exactly being inclusive. Any fan who supported every team in the league would be considered, at best, to be missing the point.
By their very nature, competitive sports and the supporting of teams is sectarian. And it’s supposed to be.
But in Scotland, we seem determined to focus on one type of sectarianism over all others. It leads to easy headlines, nonsense drama, and gives those who have somehow gained influence a chance to abuse that.
But it’s not religion that’s the issue anymore. Take a look at the census results in Scotland. The single largest group in terms of religious belief is “no religion”. Very soon, that group will overtake the combination of those who consider themselves to be Christian. Given that any football crowd is large enough (well, maybe apart from a St Johnstone away support) to be reflective of society in general, it would be foolish to think that this is something driven mainly by religion.
What Scottish football has, and it’s not unique to us, is a problem with people looking to be offensive, and others hoping to be offended. And that’s never going to go away.
Let’s take the examples of the past week to highlight what I mean. When Kris Boyd was being abused by the Celtic fans, he largely laughed it off. The names he was being called have absolutely no effect on him because they’re not applicable to him. He’s not a member of the Orange Order. The abuse was nothing more than childish. The coin throwing is obviously a very different thing and is a problem in football worldwide.
But the aftermath brought in those looking to be offended. Kris Boyd was the target of the abuse in that incident, but many decided his reaction wasn’t strong enough because they were wanting this behaviour to be condemned.
Boyd’s manager, Steve Clarke, took a very different route. During his press conference about this subject, he said: “I was brought up a Catholic but I’m no fenian”. If that’s how he feels, why is he having such a huge strop about being called that? If it doesn’t apply, if it’s just as nonsense as what was aimed at Boyd, why is it such a big deal?
Because Clarke is looking to be offended. I don’t expect a manager to be at their best right after a match. That’s why the media loves to shove a microphone in front of them at that point. Emotion tends to overrule rationality and things will be said that aren’t thought out. To then try and justify that days later is where there’s a problem. Steve Clarke, after being called a name by some big bad boys, a name which he vehemently asserts doesn’t apply to him, has no intention of just ignoring that. It suits him to bring it up constantly and be offended by it.
That’s led to what we’ve seen for a long time now. There’s a focus on one group of fans being offensive over all others. There’s not a set of supporters in Scottish football who haven’t tried to be offensive, using religion, race, or various other things. Allowing the definition of sectarianism to become so narrow has meant that many get away with it.
Let me ask this. If you call someone a fenian or an orange whatever, why is that deemed more offensive than Aberdeen fans singing songs in celebration of the Ibrox disaster? Both things are attempts to be offensive. One of them is a name-calling exercise. The other is a basic lack of humanity. Where are the media campaigns about that?
Again, that’s not something that just happens in Scotland. Ask Liverpool fans, a group who will sing about the deaths of Manchester United players but be up in arms at any sort of retort that includes Hillsborough.
A football crowd has a character. It has an identity. Individuals within that won’t always share those views or mantras outside of that situation. Anyone who understands group dynamics and human nature will know this. You become faceless in the crowd, shielded by anonymity and a common cause of those around you. It’s a secure, powerful situation which you very rarely have at other times. That’s part of the draw, something that can keep you coming back even when the team is poor and times are seemingly not good. Like any group, when you’re told that you’re the root of all evil, it only strengthens your resolve. You’ll say and do things in this situation you’d never even contemplate in more normal life because it’s safer to do so. I’ve sat in the stands at Ibrox and heard some horrendous abuse being aimed at Rangers players. If someone was to walk up and say that sort of stuff to your face, no one would blame you for breaking their jaw. In the crowd, it’s ok, because there are no consequences.
That’s basic human nature. Even the simplest of Psychology courses would show you the science behind that. If you want real change in that sort of environment, it takes time, patience and real leadership. What doesn’t work are threats, blame and hatred. They only serve to see the group become more determined to be what they’re told they shouldn’t be. If the likes of Humza Yousaf and James Dornan are serious in their attempts to rid Scottish football of this sort of issue, they’re choosing a very flawed way to try and do that.
What we have in Scotland is a historic issue which is being used to try and offend others as often as possible. Because so many in the group identify in a way which doesn’t apply at other times, you can use words or phrases to do that which really shouldn’t offend. You can also choose to be offended in the knowledge that many will join you in that. If the number of people who sing songs about killing people of another religion actually believed what they were singing, the streets of Glasgow would be far worse than they are. This country has issues far bigger than sectarianism, but our governments know they can use that to deflect attention away from their shortcomings.
As long as offence can be given or taken, football will be a place where this happens. The words or direction chosen are driven by circumstance. If the Ibrox disaster had never happened, Aberdeen fans would have found something else to sing about. If Hearts had never signed Rudi Skacel, or he hadn’t been as good a player, Hibs fans would have targetted someone else for racist abuse. You have a mix of group dynamics and pantomime along with a sense of superiority and hatred of others. If you think taking points off teams or shutting down stands is going to change that, you’re wrong. Just look at football around the world where these sort of punishments have been applied yet the same behaviours continue or even grow afterwards.
By being so selective in what you consider sectarian or offensive, and by focusing on one or two groups more than anyone else, all you’re doing is making the problem worse. The fact our “esteemed” leaders don’t know that is astounding. Everywhere in the world, football reflects the society and culture it resides in. If they want the focus of the offence and abuse to change, it’s time they had a real look at what’s going on in society in general. Football is not the cause of division in this country. We need a serious debate on education policy, on the way political parties have sown hatred, and on the laws which unfairly target certain groups. Until we look at the wider issues, there’s no chance of change.