Racist Abuse in Football

Can the law intervene to prevent cases of abuse in football?

Racism in Football

Currently the highest level of Football in England – the FA Premier League – is an extremely cosmopolitan league with players from all over the world plying their trade as footballers in England. The law has had a huge effect in this area following the decision in the Bosman case effectively opening the gates to players from all over Europe.

As a consequence of this globalization of football one problem which has persisted in English football has at times become more apparent.

The problem of racism has been a problem suffered for years in football and involves racist abuse from opposing players, fans and in some cases even teammates.

Let’s Kick Racism out of Football

The National Governing Body of football in England, the Football Association (FA) runs a campaign called “Lets Kick Racism out of Football” which is designed specifically to rid the sport of racist abuse targeting both players and fans alike.

Similarly, the World Governing Body of football – FIFA – runs campaigns to remove racism from the sport through their Fair Play campaign.

The Football Governing Bodies

The governing bodies of football such as the FA, FIFA and UEFA (the European Governing Body of Football) have the power to investigate any allegations of racist abuse made by players and fans and are able to hand down penalties.

Often these governing bodies will therefore be the first port of call for players who have suffered racist abuse enabling the sport to deal with the matter internally. It is the official position stated by FIFA that when a player suffers racist abuse, the matter should be dealt with by the sport rather than the courts.

Examples of cases involving racism

In a high profile case involving a black South African player playing for a Premier League club in European competition, the complaint was made to UEFA and the player was handed a five match ban from competitive football.

It was clear that UEFA found significant grounds of racist abuse, but the issue with this case is whether a five match ban is an appropriate sanction for this kind of abuse. The key questions are whether it was enough to discourage the same player to commit a similar act or to discourage other players from committing similar acts. Many felt that this punishment was not enough for either of these factors.  

Is it possible for a football player to take a case of racism to court?

There has been a case in French football whereby a player who suffered racist abuse at the hands of an opponent took the case to court. The player guilty of the racist abuse was given a suspended jail sentence and a fine of EUR 2,000.

Currently there is a case before the Belgian courts involving a black footballer from the USA who has suffered racist abuse at the hands of one of his opponents. The player has taken the case to court as he feels that the sanctions imposed by the Governing Bodies of the game are not enough in relation to a case like this.

What are the problems with bringing such a case before the court?

In order for the player to be convicted of using the racist language it must be proven that he did in fact make these racist remarks during the match.

This looks like a difficult task as it is one players word against another’s as the other players on the pitch as well as the referee may not have heard the comments being uttered and considering the high profile nature of the match it is likely to assume that the other players would have been too focused on the task in hand to hear the comments.

However, given the nature of the high profile which football currently occupies it is likely that the incident was in fact captured by one of the many cameras used to televise the match. If this is the case then it could be used as evidence.

What will happen if the court finds in favour of the claimant?

If the court were to find in favour of the claimant then the defendant would be subject to a fine and the possibility of a prison sentence.

What may be more apparent is the effect that a decision like this will have on the sport of football as it would create a clear precedent for all cases of this nature taking them directly out of the internal sphere of the sport and placing them directly within the adjudication of the courts.

The Law of England and Wales

The Race Relations Act 1976

If a claim were to be brought before a court of England and Wales then the appropriate sections of the Race Relations Act would be cited. The Race Relations Act applies to racial abuse suffered throughout England and Wales and applies directly to all industries including football.

If the Belgian court finds in favour of the claimant then it is likely that footballers will cite the Race Relations Act as a better alternative than going straight to the FA as the sanctions are likely to be much more strict.

Vicarious Liability

Can a football club be vicarious liable for the actions of their players under the Race Relations Act?

Section 32 of the Race Relations Act states that anything done in the course of his employment shall be treated for the purposes of the Act as done by his employer as well as him regardless of whether it was done with the employers approval or not.

This would suggest that a football club could be held vicarious liable for the racist acts of their players but due to the fact that once a player is on the pitch the club is powerless to prevent them from exerting this behaviour it is unlikely that the club would be held vicariously liable.

Disciplinary Action against employees

The Race Relations Act does not require an employer to take disciplinary action against an employee who uses racist language. However, it is highly likely that a club would take internal disciplinary action in a case like this.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.