As a Club Website poll reveals that racism in grassroots football is a greater problem than official figures suggest, Dan Pope asks why more cases aren't being reported.
It has not been a good year for football’s fight against racism.
As the professional game tries to recover from a series of high profile incidents dating back over 12 months, a Club Website poll has revealed that levels of racism at grassroots level are higher than official statistics suggest.
A survey of over 2,800 Club Website members found that 29% had witnessed some kind of racism at a grassroots football match in the last 12 months.
The results of the poll, carried out during Kick It Out's Weeks of Action last month, show a reduction in incidents when compared to identical polls from the same time in 2011 and 2010 - both of which reported a rate of 32% - but suggest that there is a significant under-reporting of incidents to the game's authorities.
The Football Association dealt with 144 incidents of misconduct in which racism was an aggravating factor across the game during the 2011-2012 season, including the John Terry and Luis Suarez cases, whilst the governing bodies in Scotland and Wales investigated just a handful of reported cases.
These official statistics might suggest that the grassroots game in Great Britain does not have a serious problem to contend with, but the consistent results found by our polls over the past three years suggest that this is not the case.
Furthermore, incidents highlighted in the grassroots game of late show that the problem is still very much a real one for some teams out there.
When England’s black players were subjected to monkey chants by supporters at an Under-21 game in Serbia last month, the football community here was quite rightly horrified, but that was the same abuse allegedly faced by an under-15s team in Leicester last month.
Leicester Nirvana FC claim that supporters of Blaby and Whetstone Boys Club FC made monkey noises, racist comments, offensive gestures and threats of violence during their game on 21 October.
The team (pictured), who play in the Leicester & District Sunday Football League, are made up of predominantly black and Asian players.
Club chairman Kirk Master, who received reports of the allegations from players, coaches and parents, said he was "disgusted" by the claims.
"The matters outlined to me are the most graphic I have been made aware of for many years at a junior level," he told the Leicester Mercury. "I am disgusted."
The Leicestershire and Rutland County FA have this morning published a statement to confirm a number of charges made in relation to this match, including one for Blaby & Whetstone FC which states:
"It is alleged that spectator(s) used offensive and/or abusive and/or insulting and/or threatening language aggravated by race."
The club has until until Thursday 13 December 2012 to respond, while the County FA is unable to provide any further information until the cases are brought to a conclusion.
The 43 County FAs in England deal with all complaints of misconduct at grassroots level, and this case provides a good example of an incident being brought forward and dealt with by the correct channels.
But there are concerns within the BME (Black & Minority Ethnic) community that not all incidents of racism will make it this far, often due to a lack of confidence in the reporting system.
Butch Fazal, chairman of the Asians in Football Forum, told a BBC Radio 5 Live investigation into racism in grassroots football that many County FA boards are out of touch with their members.
"We've got to ask ourselves how in touch are they with these issues," he told 5 Live.
"We've got county officials who are predominantly white, who probably don't have an understanding of the changing demographic of some of these areas and probably don't like to deal with these issues, so they don't deal with them."
Colin King of the Black & Asian Coaches Association told the same programme that the FA's official statistics reflect a "lack of faith and confidence that people have in the reporting system".
King, whose association works with 600 coaches each year, claims that the use of racial slurs including “the ‘P-word’ and the ‘N-word'” are “very commonly used by players as young as 12 or 13 or in the senior game at amateur level.”
The FA encourage people to report all instances of discrimination but, to do this, they require the people involved to report the incidents.
"One of the key strategic goals of the FA is ‘Football for Everyone’," the FA's Disciplinary Manager Mark Ives told 5 Live. "We can only achieve that with the help of our partners and the clubs in reporting those issues so that they can be dealt with.
"There is some diversity on County boards," he added. "If you look at the make-up of County boards now compared to 20 years ago, there is certainly some diversity, but I have to recognise there is still some work to be done."
A further statement from the Football Association said: "The FA are very interested in the results of the Club Website poll and we always encourage anyone who witnesses racism or other forms of discrimination to report it.
The statement, which also outlines the complaints procedure for anyone unhappy with an FA or County FA response to a reported incident, is available to read in full here.
"We always treat any reports of discrimination seriously," the statement adds. "Incidents can be reported to The FA via telephone on 0800 085 0508 or via email at FootballForAll@TheFA.com."
The Scottish Youth FA and Football Assocation of Wales also confirmed their "zero tolerance approach" approach to racism and their commitment to tackle the issue. Their statements can also be read in full here.
So if the commitment remains at the top of the game to deal with the problem, what more could the governing bodies do to help address the under-reporting of cases outlined by our poll?
Labour MP John Mann chaired a task force for the FA on tackling racism in 2010.
His report to the FA contained a number of recommendations for the grassroots game, including the establishment of an independent tribunal for racism and discrimination cases and red cards for abusive and violent parents on the touchline.
This latter point would, of course, leave the onus on the referee to deal with unruly spectators, which in itself causes problems.
Mann's report to the FA stated: "There is clear evidence that referees are currently wary of such conflict during matches and reluctant to report such matters afterwards. This situation is not tolerable."
Furthermore, referees are often the only independent witness at matches at grassroots football level, something that can be crucial for people wishing to report an incident.
But when referees are paid only £30 or so to take charge of a grassroots game, how many will feel it is worth their time and effort to get embroiled in a potentially serious and protracted disciplinary hearing?
The FA has had enough problems recruiting grassroots referees in recent years as it is. How many others may be put off from getting involved in the game if they have to take on such responsibility when they are only making a few quid for their troubles?
The answer, according to Mann, is to pay the referees more and make the reporting process more straightforward.
"The position of the referee needs to be strengthened," he told 5 Live. "We suggested perhaps paying the referee at the grassroots level more to try and raise the profile and get more people wanting to be referees.
“The referee is key in this because the referee is the independent arbiter who reports back into the football authorities, so a perceived strengthened role would be quite fundamental.”
Whilst frustrated that the FA has not acted on his recommendations, Mann acknowledges that football can not be expected to tackle deep-seated racism on its own.
For as long as racism exists in society then there will always be an element of it within football, but the concern in some quarters is that the football field is seen by some people a place where they can behave in a manner that they wouldn't dream of anywhere else.
As Mann told the BBC: "I was astonished how players getting abused every single week were not complaining and felt there was no purpose in complaining. In any other part of British society that kind of abuse would not be accepted."
So is football guilty of accepting an "anything goes" attitude just to get under the skin of an opponent and gaining an advantage for your side?
There will always be gamesmanship within sport, but a line needs to drawn and everyone in the grassroots game needs to do more to make sure the behaviour of our team mates and opponents falls on the correct side of that line.
The issue of racism in grassroots football is not a straightforward one to solve, as is the case in wider society, but we all have a role to play.
Kick It Out, football's equality and inclusion campaign, report that the number of incidents reported at grassroots level has actually gone up in the last few months. Whether that is because of an increase in cases or a greater willingness to report incidents in light of recent high profile cases is difficult to ascertain.
But they still recognise that there is a shortfall in reported incidents, as highlighted in Club Website's poll.
A Kick It Out spokesperson said: "From our work 'in the field', either in the form of Kick It Out community forums, or the recent Raise Your Game mentoring and leadership events which ran across the country, we're made aware of serious and significant incidents of discriminatory abuse from individuals involved in all areas of the grassroots game.
"This, along with the sheer volume of games taking place every weekend set against the low number of cases lodged may suggest some of this behaviour simply doesn’t get reported.
"A key aim of Kick It Out is to encourage reporting, highlighting how it can be done and reaffirming its importance in the ongoing challenge to make the game discrimination-free. We work in the context of partnerships with the FA both at central and County level, to ensure people have faith that if they do log an incident, it will be acted upon."
The words ‘football’ and ‘racism’ have been unhappy bedfellows for much of the last year, with far too many column inches on the sport taken up with the wrong type of stories.
Kick It Out and the wider footballing public will no doubt hope that, by the time next year's Weeks of Action come around, they can look back on a quieter 12 months.
But, for many people, the game's authorities need to show their teeth a little more and back up their messages with stronger actions.
Football is a wonderfully inclusive game. Anyone can play it and millions of people from every corner of our diverse community get together to do so every week.
Let's hope that our sport, only recently regarded as a champion of the anti-racism cause, can prove once again that it really is a game for everyone.
Dan Pope, Club Website editor
Tell us what you think?
What do you think of Club Website's poll results? Have you ever wanted to report a racist incident but not done so? If so, what held you back?
What more can football do to tackle the issue at grassroots level? What steps would you like to see your FA take to improve the situation? Should referees be given more responsibility - and more money - to help tackle the problem?
And what can we do within the grassroots community? Is there a element of "anything goes" on the football pitch? If so, how do we address that?
We'd love to hear from you, so please have your say via our comments section below.