Kicking out bullying and harassment in football

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In the 2017-2018 football season, 33% of the UK Premier League’s football players were from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is double the figure from 25 years before. On the face of it, it is perhaps one of the most ethnically diverse sport in the world and gives another new meaning to the well-known phrase “The Beautiful Game”. But beyond the pitch, much like in other organisations, diversity is still a relatively new concept to football clubs and doesn’t mirror what we see on the field.

The Premier League revealed that just 12% of their staff are from ethnic minority backgrounds, 11.1% of club board members are women and just 3% of all employees have declared a disability. Data on those who identify as LGBTQ is unknown, though this is unsurprising and assumedly very low, especially considering the stigma attached to the community. So it’s no wonder we regularly hear stories of bullying, discrimination and harassment in football and in other sports.

Bullying and harassment in football

Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out are two organisations aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion and eliminating racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination within football. However, while these predominantly look to tackle the issues prevalent on the field, in the stands and on social media, the needs and problems of those who also work tirelessly within the clubs are put on the backbench.

Too often we hear about allegations of bullyingracismhomophobia and both male and female sexual harassment going on within some of the UK’s biggest football clubs. Thankfully, in the cases we hear about, the victim-survivors were courageous enough to speak up and report the incidents. But what about those who feel silenced?

According to a survey conducted by Women in Football in 2020, two-thirds of women working in football have experienced gender discrimination, but only 12% reported it; the discrepancy is more sad than shocking. And a staggering 82% say they have faced barriers to workplace promotion. 

Furthermore, in a previous survey in 2016, the differences in those who responded “Yes” to having witnessed any form of misconduct and those who experienced it (noticeably less), suggests a worrying trend in those who experience poor behaviour not being comfortable enough to say so in surveys and feedback forms. Our research has shown that 31% of people would not share their concerns in annual employee surveys, which proves that conducting them to try and get a better picture of what’s going on is not enough and not the only route employers should rely on.

Banter vs. bullying in football

Banter in football is also prevalent, with 62% of those asked saying they have experienced sexist “banter” or jokes and 70% having witnessed it. This is mirrored in the latest big news story about former Crawley Town FC manager John Yems, who was repeatedly accused of racism that was often passed off as banter, dismissed or downplayed. If you want to understand more about the differences and the fine line between banter and bullying, this article may help you.

The effects of bullying and harassment in football

Our statistics show that 2 in 5 people have experienced bullying, discrimination or harassment in the workplace, and we uncovered the tolls that can take on people’s mental health, productivity, engagement and attendance at work. With just over a third of people having reported incidents before and many saying they wouldn’t report out of fear of repercussions, you can see why action needs to be taken to reduce those barriers people face.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA)’s survey of 843 players showed that nearly 10% of Premier League and English Football League players said they had experienced bullying during their careers and almost 5% had suicidal thoughts. It also found more than one-fifth had experienced severe anxiety. But what would research into staff find? Would that show similar or perhaps even higher statistics? Presumably toxic masculinity and “lad culture”, often attributed to football and other sports, have played a part in the experiences players have faced but also the reason why some may not have spoken up before or even still don’t voice their concerns in surveys and feedback forms. This echoes the widely known fact that men – who dominate football and other contact team sports – are not as open about mental health and wellbeing.

Tackling problematic behaviour in football

Aside from surveys, what are truly tangible ways in which bullying, discrimination and harassment can be prevented and stopped? Consent training has been rolled out to all Premier League footballers and other forms of training for everyone is certainly one method that can be used. No club wants a bad reputation brought on by allegations and incidents of sexual harassment, as we’ve seen happen to clubs like Chelsea FC and in other high profile organisations such as the policegovernment or universities.

But providing a safe space and alternative, anonymous route to reporting or at least giving feedback has been proven to have a positive impact on work culture by many of our partners. Over time there were not only more reports made but more people making named reports which doesn’t necessarily show an increase in problematic behaviours but does show an increase in trust over how they are handled and the action taken to prevent and rectify them. 62% of people say they are more likely to report an incident if they had an anonymous platform to do so, and we bet that if they knew of an organisation that implemented one and did so properly, that percentage would surely only go up as they see the positive effects it has.

And without those reports being made, how else would your football club truly know the extent of any problems going on? While not all reports may be able to be dealt with directly if they’re anonymous, the data could show trends in behaviours that lead to targeted and effective action. This could include a change of processes, the reiteration and reinforcement of policies, the follow through of procedures, training and awareness or even changes in organisational structure and the implementation of mental health and wellbeing initiatives and support or ERGs (Employee Resource Groups).

If you work in ED&I or HR within football, we know you’ll agree that it’s about time bullying, discrimination and harassment was given the boot once and for all. If you want to find out more about how we can help you achieve your Equality, Diversity and Inclusion or People goals, contact us and one of our dedicated, (football-fanatic) team players will be happy to talk!

How can we help you?

Reach out to our dedicated team who will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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